My friend Brendan the Bard wrote a blog entry about Venues and Values for a Bard. He glossed over competitions because "Frankly, it's not a real nice part of my personality that comes out in competitions, which is why I don't enter them much anymore. I don't much like the version of me that takes the stage in competition."
I, on the other hand, will perform any time I get the chance and bardic competitions are just another venue to perform in. I have won the baronial bard competition three times, was named Prince's Bard of the Principality, won the Royal Bardic Championship twice, earned an armband from Cariadoc, a Troubadour from the King of the East and a handful of bardic competitions at assorted events, hence the alphabet soup listed above which I normally don't bother with. You could say I'm one of the winning-est bards in AEthelmearc. It's also true to say that I'm one of the losing-est bards in AEthelmearc. I'm actually one of the entering-ist bards in AEthelmearc. I've won the Royal Bard competition twice, and since I've entered the majority of them, that means I've lost it dozens of times! But no one has ever introduced me as 'The bard who lost the Royal Championship over twenty times', only as 'a two-time winner of the Royal Bardic'. Your wins are recorded in history, only you remember the losses.
At this point, I'd like to tell you a little about myself. I'm a gamer. In college, I would spend all weekend playing war games. Literally. We'd start after our last class on Friday and play Risk or Diplomacy all night Friday, all day Saturday, and well into Sunday. On Sunday afternoon, with my dreams of world conquest as shattered as broken glass, I'd help put away the pieces and then ask, "Okay, what do you want to play next?" Winning was cool, but the victory would be forgotten by next weekend. One of the problems with the SCA is we give danglies to 'winners' and people forget it's the performance that's the thing. If you want to perform in bardic competitions, you're going to have to develop a thick skin. More on this below. That being said, I'd like to give a few tips on entering bardic performances.
Find out the rules of the competition. Most bardic events consist of each competitor performing one piece, but I've seen competitions where a few, but not all, performers are called upon for an encore before the judge/s choose/s the winner. Some competitions can have an elaborate set of rules. I've seen competitions that were multi-tiered, with three rounds, half the entrants eliminated after each round, you cannot have the same type of performance (filk, period, poem, story, instrument, etc) twice in a row and each round had a theme. Whew! Sometimes, the contests are 'any kind of performance' and acts like juggling, magic, puppetry, or instrumental are allowed to compete.
Try to find out who is judging. The audience? Pick something that will have them stomping boots on floors and tankards on tables. A laurel for music? Something documented to period. The king? If you don't know anything about him, try a campfire drinking song. If you know something about his persona, pick something from his persona's time and place. If you're not going with original work, have more than one song prepared. The second person to perform the same song in competition seldom wins. The other reason you need more than one piece is that you may find yourself in a run-off with the other finalists as mentioned above. Try to pick as different a piece as possible to show your versatility, even if it's not a requirement. Follow a drinking song with a period piece, music with a spoken story. I've seen competitons where each competitor was given a topic and had to compose on the spot. It helps to have a repretoire of historical incidents. I could tell a story of Michaelangelo or Genghis Khan off the cuff. Memorize a few rhyme patterns of sonnets. It keeps your poetry from becoming doggeral. It also makes you look like a bardic badass, if you can knock off a sonnet when others are struggling with simpler rhymes. Limericks are crowd pleasers, but it's difficult to create a piece that fits the rhyme scheme and is both clean and funny within limited time parameters.
Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. If the audience thinks it's impromptu, that's fine, but it shouldn't actually be unrehearsed. Time your performance during rehearsals. Too long equals too boring. A mummer's play with multiple actors, or a puppet show can probably go 15-20 minutes. A solo performance should be kept to 5-7 minutes.
If there is someone listed in the event announcement as being in charge of entertainment for the event, write them an email. Introduce yourself, tell him what kind of performer you are (juggler, harpist, singer, etc.), how long your performance is, any conditions you need (a level floor space for your hammered dulcimer, enough light to read music by, etc.) and when you expect to arrive on site.
When you arrive on site, ask the troll to point out the MC to you. Introduce yourself, tell him where your equipment (if any) is, how many people are needed to carry it up to high table, how long you need to prepare (psyche yourself up, tune your instrument, etc.). If the performances are going to be at a specific place, see if you can leave your musical instruments or any equipment there. If the performances will be held during the feast, tell the MC where you will be seated. If the seating chart isn't up yet, tell him whether you're on-board or off-board and inform him when you do get a seat. Remember, he has to find you in a room lit only by candles.
When the MC tells you that you're on next, gather your equipment together as quickly as possible and do whatever set up is needed for your performance. If you have something bulky like a harp or a hammered dulcimer and high table is on a stage, it might actually be better to set up in front of the stage as the area is front of high table is usually just wide enough for a server.
Make sure the MC knows how to pronounce your name. If you have a name that's difficult to pronounce
you may wish to give him either a phonetic or a shortened form of it on a cue card if need be.
Try to stand one step behind
and to the side when he is speaking to high table so that you are visible to high table but not
upstaging him. If he is standing on the stairs to the stage, stand to the side of the foot of the
stairs. If your equipment is set up, stand by it. He will direct
their attention to you. Wait quietly while the MC talks. Bow to the royalty when he mentions your
name. Do not speak until the MC bows and turns to walk away. Address high table by their correct
titles. (If you do not know them, ask the MC beforehand). Give a brief introduction of your act.
This should be two sentences at the most. For example:
"Your majesties, I would like to perform a Scottish love ballad titled, "Band of Shearers".
It was traditionally sung in late summer and early autumn during sheep clipping season."
You do not have to give your name as the MC has already introduced you. Work out your introduction
ahead of time so that there are no surprises in it. Please note in the above example, I said
"clipping" as "sheep shearing season" can be a tongue twister. Having a prepared statement also
eliminates the awkwardness of fumbling for words.
Next, the Judges are insane. Remember this. There's no other explanation. I've seen them choose winners for reasons that defy explanation. I've seen a bard who literally had the joint rocking with audience members stamping their feet in time to the music lose to an entrant who could barely be heard past the second row. Case in point; It was an event with a tavern and a laid back bardic competition. No rules posted, simply mention of a prize for the best bard. I had no clue who was judging, there was no sign up sheet, no master of ceremonies, just folks hanging out in the bar. Another senior bard and myself casually started running things, leading the applause after every performance, asking who wanted to go next, making sure everyone had a chance to perform. One gentle decided to try his hand at performing. His selection was "Ricketty Ticketty Tin" an old bardic campfire standby, but not one I would use in a serious competition. He was nervous and it showed. He was butchering the song, singing off-key, forgetting lines, skipping entire lyrics. I nodded my head at the other bard and when he came around to the chorus, we joined him. We sang the chorus together in full volume and more softly on the lyrics. If he forgot a line, we supplied it. He missed a lyric, we started it. He started to drift off-key, we pulled him back into harmony. He finished the song and we led the applause. Afterward, he came over to me and thanked me for the assist. I told him not to worry about it, every bard has an off-night once in a while. In court that evening, one of the audience members was called up. She was the judge for the bardic competition. You guessed it, she chose the Ricketty Ticketty Tin singer. After court and during the feast I sought her out. "Excuse me, I'm interested in how you picked the bardic winner." "Well, it was obvious he was the best performer." "Umm, no it isn't, that's why I was asking." "He was the only bard who got the audience to join in on the chorus." Considering how much original work I had heard that night, that wasn't too surprising. It would have been nice to know that was part of the judging standard.
When you have finished your performance, bow, gather your equipment and leave. There may be still more acts following you. If your gear is too bulky to carry off, move it out of harm's way and retrieve it later.
When they announce in court that the no-talent hack who followed you was declared the winner, smile and applaud. When you get home, have a stiff drink and then check the event schedule to see when the next bardic competion is. Good luck!