A Short Explanation of Medieval Modes

The medieval modes are as close as we get to scales in pre-common-practice music (that is, music prior to 1600 or so). They aren’t really scales, though.

To start, let’s look at the diatonic scale. It’s what modern scales are built on, and what the medieval modes are built on. The diatonic scale is this pattern:

…WWHWWWH…

H = Half step

W = Whole step.

If you think of a piano keyboard, a whole step is the distance between two keys that have only one key in the middle. C – D is a whole step. E to F♯ is a whole step. A half step is the distance between two keys that have no keys have no keys in between. E to F is a half step. C to C♯ is a half step.

whole-step  half-step

If you look at the entire piano keyboard, the white keys form the diatonic scale. The pattern mentioned above is repeated over and over again.

The C major scale is when you start on C and then repeat the diatonic scale pattern over and over making C your most important note. The pattern looks like this:

…[WWHWWWH][WWHWWWH][WWHWWWH]…

The brackets contain one period of the C major pattern.

The A (natural) minor scale is when you start on A and then repeat the diatonic scale pattern over and over making A the most important note. The pattern will look like this

…[WHWWWHWW][WHWWWHWW][WHWWWHWW]…

The brackets contain one period of the A minor pattern. In bold is the C major pattern, just to emphasize that this is still the diatonic scale, we’ve only shifted the start and end point of the period.  

This idea of shifting the starting point of the diatonic scale period is the basis of modes. In fact, you could call C major and A minor modes in this sense. Ionian mode is another name for the major scale, and Aeolian mode is another name for natural minor. These terms were both coined in the 16th century by music theorist Heinrich Glarean. For whatever reasons, those modes weren’t part of the musical theory before then.

The modes that were in use were the ones starting on D, E, F, and G.

Dorian

The mode starting on D was called Dorian. Using a keyboard, if you play and octave from D to D using only white keys you get the Dorian mode.

The pattern in steps looks like this:

…[WHWWWHW][WHWWWHW][WHWWWHW]…

Again I’ve bolded the C major pattern. It’s still there!

So if you’re in D it’s easy to play in the Dorian mode. Just play D a lot and don’t play any sharps or flats. But it’s not too hard to remember if you shift to starting on a different note. The modern key of D minor has a B♭, and B♭ is the sixth of the D minor scale. So if you sharp the 6th of a minor scale (and leave the 7th flat) you get Dorian. Or, you can think of it as playing an ascending harmonic minor scale, but leaving the 7th flat.

For example, A Dorian would look like this:

A B C D E F♯ G A

G Dorian would look like this:

G A B♭ C D E F G

G Dorian happens a lot in renaissance music. The way to identify it is if you have a piece with one flat that ends on G.

Another way to identify dorian pieces is if the piece would be in minor, but the last flat is missing from the key signature. The modern key of G minor has both B♭ and E♭ in the key signature. G Dorian only has B♭.

Lydian

In Lydian, you start on F and play only white keys.

There’s a weird thing about Lydian, though. Because of (I believe) hexachordal reasons, the B is flat most of the time. So you effectively get a major scale. This may be why Medieval music theorists hadn’t considered Ionian mode, since they got what it provides with Lydian.

So, if you play in F major, you’re probably playing Lydian.

Mixolydian

Start on G and play only white keys.

Or, play a G scale without the F♯. Or, play any major scale without the leading tone.

Here’s C mixolydian:

C D E F G A B♭ C

Phrygian

Start on E and play only white keys.

You’ll hear people talk about Phrygian with adjectives like “weird” or “eerie”. In the middle ages it was associated with the choleric humor, i.e. angry. In fact all of the modes had an associated humor.

Another way to think of Phrygian is to play E minor without the F♯. Or, play a minor scale and flat the second.

A Phrygian would look like this:

A B♭ C D E F G A

What I’ve described up to now is how modern musicians think and use modes. (With the exception of Lydian — modern musicians would play an F scale without the B♭. Otherwise you’re just playing a major scale.)

Medieval modes have a few more wrinkles.

Authentic vs. Plagal

The modes were used as a classification system for chants. Chants are melodies. A way you can classify a melody is by its range (how low it goes to how high it goes) and where the “tonic” (as we would think of it) or “final” (as the medieval music theorist would think of it) is in relation to the range. Is it at the bottom like, say “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star?”

twinkle

The range for Twinkle is a sixth, in this case middle C to A above middle C. Its final is the bottom note, in this case C.

Or, is it in the middle of the melody, like “O Come All Ye Faithful?”

adestfid

The range is an octave (from D to D an octave higher), and its final is in the middle of the range. (In this case G)

In the middle ages, Twinkle Twinkle would be classified as “Authentic”: the final is at the bottom of the range. “O Come All Ye Faithful” would be classified as “Plagal”: the final is in the middle of the range. Plagal modes have the prefix “Hypo”.

And with that, here’s a chart of the Medieval modes:

The_eight_musical_modes

There’s a bit more to the medieval modes than this, like when does one flat the Bs? And what if the range of a melody is really large? And how does hexachord theory fit into all of this? But I don’t understand that well enough to answer accurately.

How do the modes fit into playing and composing music in a medieval or Renaissance style?

I think that the modern understanding of modes is the most relevant part. That is, knowing how to modify a major or minor scale to make a mode. Want to make Greensleeves in A minor sound modal? Don’t sharp the G!  Do sharp the F.

When you’re trying to play along with a modal piece, the easiest and most convincing accompaniment is a drone on the final. Or maybe the final and a fifth above it. Greensleeves in Dorian with a drone on the final will sound good. Carelessly applying chords will sound weird and probably bad.

The plagal vs. authentic part I wouldn’t worry overmuch about. Does it really matter if your piece’s final is in the middle of the range vs. the bottom? No. Just have a final.

In performing polyphony, it can be useful to know what mode you’re in if you’re trying to sight sing using movable-do solfege. For instance, if you’re learning a piece in G Dorian, you might be tempted, via the key signature of one flat, to sing the piece as if it was in F major or D minor – that is, assigning the syllable ‘do’ to F, ‘re’ to G, and ‘la’ to D. But, your ear might be better served by assigning the ‘la’ to G and singing ‘fi’ (a sharped ‘fa’) for the E♮ – that is, singing as if it was in G minor with a sharped sixth. (Neither approach is relevant to how it would have been sight-sung at the time – again, see hexachord theory for more on that…)

In writing polyphony, modes have basically nothing to say about how the parts interact. You have to look to treatises on counterpoint for that.

And that’s an introduction to modes. Hope it helps!

Renaissance ABC’s

Facsimile of Christes Cross melody.
Facsimile of Christes Cross melody.

 

At St. Cecilia this year, my friend, Master Christian, gave me some sheet music he believed I’d be interested in. It was a three part piece by Thomas Morley, from his book, A Plain and Easy Introduction to Practical Music. Basically, Morley used the ABC song of the time to demonstrate counterpoint. The top-line contains the melody; the bottom two lines are the counterpoint that Morley composed.

Of course, I’ve been singing the Christes Crosse to Martin ever since. 😛 I will win the Internet when he can sing it.

Fun fact: it doesn’t have the letters J or U since I and J were and interchangeable as were U and V.

Also interesting, it has a range of an Octave and a fourth, which is pretty wide. Today’s ABC song (Twinkle Twinkle) has a range of a sixth.

A couple of notes about the video:

  • I know it should be “when you have done” not “when you are done”.  I realized my mistake way too far in the process, and would have had to redo everything to fix it. So… no.
  • Attributing the piece to Morley is a bit like attributing “Twinkle Twinkle” (or Ah vous dirai-je, Maman) to Mozart. Morley presumable didn’t write the tune for Christes Crosse…

If there’s interest, I could be convinced to record Morley’s first variation.

Enjoy!

What Recorder Should I Buy?

Playing Agricola's "Et Qui La Dira" on some Yamaha 300 series recorders.
Playing Agricola’s “Et Qui La Dira” on Yamaha 300 series recorders.

“What recorder should I buy?” “What recorder should I start on?” “I want to upgrade to a wooden recorder, which one should I get?” I’ve been asked these questions quite a few times, and I figured it’s about time I put my answers in one place.

“What size recorder should I start on”?

Should you start with a soprano or alto or tenor? The answer depends on a few factors. If you want to play SCA dance music, go with a soprano. There’s a lot more support for teaching yourself the soprano than alto, and the melodies for most of the dances fit well on the soprano.

If you’re playing consort music, tenor is a better pick because the tenor lines tend to be easier, and many pieces sound better on lower instruments. You can use the soprano “how to play the recorder” book because both soprano and tenor recorders have the same fingering. The stretch on the tenor can take some getting used to, but most people can do it. My fingers are not particularly long and I get by.

Why not alto? The short version is that the method books I’ve seen aren’t very good. In particular they teach alto “at pitch,” when most of the time I play alto “octave up”.*

“I want to learn recorder, which one should I buy?”

The recorder to start with is a Yamaha 300 series soprano or tenor. Pretty much every recorder player I know has a set. The soprano runs around $20, the Tenor is around $65.  The 300 series also has altos and sopraninos and basses.

If you want a renaissance style recorder, the Mollenhauer Dream plastic is great to start. (I still need to pick one up.) A soprano is about $30.

“I want to upgrade to a wooden recorder. Which should I get?”

First, remember this: just because a recorder is wooden doesn’t mean it’s better than plastic. If it’s under $100 it almost certainly isn’t better than a plastic. I’ve had the misfortune of playing wooden recorders that don’t play in tune. I would not recommend it!

With that out of the way: the best entry level wooden recorder is the Mollenhauer Dream. The soprano runs for about $130. I have a soprano, and I’ve come to like it quite a bit.

If you want a step up from the Dream, you’re looking at a Kobliczek Praetorius or a Mollenhauer “Kynseker”. Sopranos run at around $450. Altos around $650. I have a Praetorius alto, and am really happy with it.

If you decide you want a wooden recorder, Von Huene is open to sending a few of each to try. I highly recommend doing that since every wooden recorder is unique.

For advice on how to judge wooden recorders, I recommend looking at Chapter 7, “Selecting and Caring for Your Recorder” of Ken Wollitz’s The Recorder Book. It’s a book recorder players should have in their collection.

“What method book should I use?”

I don’t think method book matters that much. When I was in elementary school my parents got me “Recorder Fun” which came with an attached Yamaha recorder. When I started playing SCA in college I dug it up out of their basement and used that to teach myself.

Since then I’ve acquired a few other method books:

Hugh Orr’s Basic Recorder Technique Vol 1: Soprano and Basic Recorder Technique Vol 1: Alto

These books are nice because they have a lot of description on how to hold and play the recorder. They are also nice in that there is a book dedicated to the Alto recorder

Steve Rosenberg’s Recorder Playing

I’ve used this book to teach recorder to new players. It is for soprano or tenor recorders. What is nice about this series is that much of the music in it is from the Renaissance or Baroque eras.

Kulbach and Nitka’s The Recorder Guide

I used this book to learn Alto recorder fingering. What is nice about this book is it teaches Soprano and Alto fingering simultaneously. The Alto fingering is “at pitch”, though.

I’ve found David Green’s recorder method book reviews useful. His descriptions of the different books are much more detailed than what I’ve written.

I hope this helps you make your recorder purchasing choices a little easier. Happy playing!

*  “At pitch” means the staff for the alto is an octave lower than the staff for the soprano.  For example both of the following are the same pitch: this is “octave up” f_octave_up and this is “at pitch” f_at_pitch. Many pieces that fit a soprano recorder also fit the alto recorder, and those pieces are all written alto “octave up”.

 

SCA Musician Myths

My band, Psallite, playing period music.
My band, Psallite, playing period music.

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about Bardic music’s place in the SCA landscape due to an article that came out in the Æthelmearc Gazette last week. In the article and the discussion around it I saw a lot of the same misconceptions of the SCA Early Music community (here on out called “musicians”) that I thought we were past. Apparently not. The purpose of this article is to address the things I’ve heard over the years about musicians and what the musicians want to see in the Bardic community. I want something to link to when I see the same misconceptions repeated every few years.

First, a disclaimer. I am not all musicians. I can’t speak for everyone. That said, I do know a lot of musicians in the Middle Kingdom and radiating outward. I host the only period music focused event in the Middle Kingdom. I know the pulse of the music community. I don’t believe a lot of what I say here will be controversial among that community.

So, here we go.

Musicians want only real pre-1600 music at SCA events. Newly composed music is by definition not period therefore they want to stamp it out.

No. I am happy with new compositions, as long as there is an attempt to do it in a period way. Process and intent are more important that product. If someone listens to a period song on YouTube and tries to write something that sounds like that song, that is a success. If someone takes a period tune and writes new lyrics that’s great! If someone writes a poem in rondeau form that’s perfect.

The important thing is engaging with period sources. If what makes a bard is telling the stories and history of the cultures we study and our own history, then I am saying that is not enough. Bards also have to engage with period material. At least if they want A&S cred. 

Musicians insist on people using only period instruments. I can’t afford period instruments so I will be rejected.

Repertoire is what matters, not what instrument you play it on. If you’re playing period or period-style music on your modern violin or trumpet or mandolin or guitar or plastic Yamaha recorder THAT IS PERFECTLY FINE. In fact, I’d say that’s not even a real barrier to mastery in music. You can tune a guitar like a lute and play all of the lute repertoire on it. You can play all the recorder music on plastic recorders. You can definitely play the repertoire on a modern violin.

If you notice that the well respected musicians tend to have fancy period instruments that’s because 1) they’ve been doing this a while and you tend to have more disposable income as you get older and 2) they’ve been at this long enough that they’ve decided that this is an OK place to put their money. They’re going to get enough value out of the instrument for it to be worth it.

One of my biggest pet peeves is people who think they can buy their way into the respected musician club. Good technique matters a lot more than a fancy period instrument.

Recorder-wise, I play my plastic Yamaha 300 series recorders the most because they play in tune, they don’t care about humidity, and I don’t have to worry about whether I just ate cake before playing them. I unapologetically bring my Casio Keyboard to events because I can play period harpsichord on the keyboard just as well as on the real thing. Also, I don’t have to spend all of the event tuning the keyboard.

There isn’t much period music available

This is not true. There is sooooo much material freely available today! It is getting easier and easier to get good quality editions of period music for free! Let me tell you about some places you can find it:

Choral Public Domain Library (cpdl.org)

With their multi-category site search, you can search by period and by number of voices, including solo voice! As of today there are 207 renaissance solo pieces, and 216 medieval solo pieces. (To be fair most of the solo-medieval music on here is chant, but trust me when I say there is a lot of legit solo medieval music.)

International Music Score Library Project (imslp.org)

Like CPDL, IMSLP has robust search capability.

Baroness Kasha’s translations

Kasha has made singable translations of period music. This is a great place to get started if you want to choose from a wide variety of period stuff. If you want to find the piece in the original language, just google the name of the piece.

Thomas Ravenscroft 

He was (essentially) an ethnomusicologist in the early 1600s. He went around collecting music “of the people”.

This is just the very tip of the iceberg of available period music.

There isn’t much solo secular music from the Celtic, Slavic, or Scandinavian areas before the late Renaissance

This is sadly still true. We can make educated guesses about what music sounded like, but there isn’t the wealth of information for those regions as there is for say, France. I am sad too. My persona is Polish. I did Polish dancing growing up. I’d love to do period Polish court dances in the SCA. But there are no dance manuals. I take what I can get, and keep an ear out for new discoveries.

I am also more willing to compromise for those regions. But I don’t think the answer is that we should throw up our hands and just play modern Irish traditional music because the period Irish stuff either wasn’t written down or was lost. Let’s talk about it, see how close to period we can get, and make educated guesses about what the music might have sounded like.

I don’t read music, how am I supposed to learn these songs?!

I’m thrilled to tell you that today it has never been easier to listen to period music. Just search for the name of the piece on YouTube.

Musicians care more about being period than being entertaining. If the only thing my audience will appreciate is a modern style tune, it’s my duty as a performer to give them what they want. That is what good performers do. You have to meet the audience where they are.

How entertaining or accessible a piece is and how period it is are not related.

It is perfectly possible to have period songs that are really accessible and entertaining. It is also possible to have modern stuff that isn’t. There is a rich middle ground that is acceptable.

My repertoire for SCA is 100% period appropriate. Accessibility of said material varies. Kasha’s translation work and the way we perform it is super accessible. Lots of people enjoy Wolgemut; all of their stuff is period. Owain Phyfe was basically a dude with a guitar that played  period material in the original language and his stuff was super accessible and well liked. At the other end is the 13th century Perotin piece I learned 5 years ago. An acquired taste to say the least.

Good performers do know their audience. But that doesn’t mean a performer has to pull out something modern. If the only thing that the audience will like in your repertoire is something modern, that’s more likely to be a problem with your repertoire and your performing ability, not the source material. Step up your game.

And again, newly composed music and poetry can be period appropriate! The only requirement to avoid side-eye from musicians is that the composer consulted period material before writing it. In fact, you won’t just avoid side-eye, you will get praise.

Period music is unpalatable to the modern ear.

This is just not true. As I said above, Wolgemut and Owain Phyfe both performed period music. Both are well liked by all walks of SCAdians. How accessible and enjoyable a piece of music is has a lot more to do with how it is performed than the music itself.

Period music is based on the diatonic scale, which is still used today, therefore the melody I made up is probably period sounding.

You know what else is based on the diatonic scale? Just about everything. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, the Beatles, any pop song.

That’s a lot of music. There’s a lot of variation. Even within pop music, which is arguably pretty homogenous, people with no musical training can tell the difference between a country song and a folk song and a rock song. Are you going to tell me they can’t hear the difference between Sting’s Dowland album and his usual stuff? Really?

That said, I think the real question is something more like, “American and British traditional music sounds pretty similar to some late period music, so if I write something in that style I’m effectively writing in a period style.”

One example I’ve heard recently is comparing “Martin Said To His Man”, a period tune, and “Step it Out Mary” a modern day traditional-style tune. I agree that the tune for “Step it out Mary” isn’t glaringly out of period sounding, but to me that just means that writing period sounding tunes today is possible. I might go as far as to say a person who grew up mostly listening to traditional tunes might naturally come up with music that meets the mark. But 1) that applies to almost none of us, and 2) we are a historical group! We should be emulating “Martin Said To His Man” when writing our own songs, not “Step it Out Mary”. Knowing why you think your music sounds period is important! Engaging with the source material is important!

Also, the stuff I hear coming out of Bardic is not on the level of Step it Out Mary. The songs I’ve heard have problems like melodic jumps that were not done, and harmonic shifts that were not done. Among other things.

To try to help the problem, my band is working on some simple ideas for getting started with writing music that better meets period practice. But to really start writing period-sounding music there is no substitute for playing and listening to it a lot.

Writing period sounding music is too high of a bar for newcomers! We want to get people writing as fast as possible!

First, much slack must be given to newcomers. Always. If a newcomer performs something that is not to the current tastes of the Society, we let it slide and try to expose them to “better” stuff. We should always assume people have honest motivations.

So, newcomers aside, how can we make it easier for newer bards to write in a more period style?

The easiest thing is contrafacta. Take a period tune and write new words for it. Where do I find period tunes? Here’s some stuff to get you started:

If you’re not sure how a song sounds, search for it on YouTube. There are almost certainly recordings. It has never been easier to listen to period music.

If you want to write your own song? Start with a period poetic form. Here are a few: Rondeau, Virelai, Ballade. Write your poem, then write your tune. You have already met the minimum criteria!

Want to go further? Listen to a few songs that use your poetic form. Then attempt to mimic those songs in some way. This is going above and beyond and is AWESOME.

Want to take your game up even further? I can point you to some composition treatises and some modern textbooks on period composition.

We ask everyone to make an attempt at period clothing for events. That is the same thing I am asking for here. I want composers to attempt to look at period material before writing their song or poem.

In period, people were composing music. I am composing music. Isn’t the fact that I am composing music enough?

A couple analogies. People wore pants in period. Therefore my blue jeans are enough.

People danced in the Middle Ages. Therefore swing dancing at an event is period enough.

Composing in and of itself is not enough. We need to engage with period source material, just like every other A&S craft. At least if you want A&S recognition.

If Bardic moves in this direction where do our old songs, written before we knew better, go? We will lose our history!

Here is where my opinion probably differs from others in the music community.

In my opinion, the old songs written to very obviously modern tunes and in very obviously modern forms belong at post revels,private camps, and social media. I believe they don’t belong front and center at court or at feast or in general at events. What should be front and center are our best attempts to capture our history in the forms of our period and with performances most likely to draw people into our period.

As for losing our history, we will only lose it if bards don’t translate it to more period appropriate forms, and if they don’t play these forms in an attention grabbing way.

This is a call to step up your game!

Can’t we just coexist?

Again, I think my opinion here might not be the most popular.

There is only so much time at events. There’s especially little undivided attention the general SCA populace is willing to give performers. What should they be presented with in that little time?

My answer is the best period appropriate stuff we have to offer.

The dance community faced a similar problem. There is only so much time at evening balls. What dances should be in the ball list? Dances from the period repertoire? Old out-of-period favorites? New choreographies in varying degrees of period-correctness?

Ultimately the choice in these parts of the Known World was to fill the ball list with a range of dances from the period repertoire and some newer SCA choreographies. All of these choreographies have at least some period connection, even if they are just Playford 1651 inspired. The Out of Period dances are reserved for dance practices, post-revels, after midnight at the dance tent at Pennsic, and other similar venues.

Are some people sad about it? Absolutely. But I think it’s the right decision. It would be sad if our balls were populated with lots of out of period dances when there’s a lot of period repertoire to choose from.

I believe that music in the SCA should evolve along these lines.

Honestly, I don’t have a real problem with a bardic circle at an event with loose rules. I do get annoyed when the undivided attention of the masses is expected to be given toward non-period or non-period influenced works when there is period-appropriate material that could do the job just as well or better.

Do all or most musicians agree with me on this? Probably not. So it goes.  

Should there be an A&S category for “SCA Genre” music?

To me, that’s the same as asking, should there be an A&S category for non-period artistic works. The answer is no.

I know someone who makes cake subtleties. I love her work. But it doesn’t belong in an A&S competition. I know someone who paints inspiring images of SCA events. It’s not period, though, and thus doesn’t belong in an A&S competition. The same goes for “SCA genre” music.

Now, there’s nothing stopping the Bardic community from having their own competitions. In fact they should! The judges will be far more knowledgeable than the random judges at A&S fairs.

I have been very disappointed in the Middle Kingdom judging criteria for performing arts for a long time. To combat it, I instituted master classes at St. Cecilia, where musicians could get useful feedback from the SCA’s musical experts on their performance instead of getting docked points for their garb. (Or the garb of their accompanist. *facepalm*). There’s no reason the Bardic Community couldn’t do the same thing.

We don’t know anything about what the common folk sung in period. We don’t have extant secular music.

This is not true. To start, we have a number of melodies that we know or are pretty sure originate with common musicians. Off the top of my head, “L’homme Arme” is probably a folk song. “Kalenda Maya” is a jongleur tune that a troubadour immortalized. “Le recueil des plus belles et excellentes chansons en forme de voix de ville” (Literally translated to “Collection of the Most Beautiful and Excellent songs from the Voice of the City” ) is a bunch of collected folk songs. Ravenscroft collected music from the folk at the end of our period. With a little bit of work I could isolate more known period folk melodies. We also know that courtly music was performed by lower class musicians. (We know because the troubadours complained about it.) 

And if you just want secular music… Entire genres full of music. Troubadours, chansons, madrigals, lute songs. Each of these has hundreds of secular pieces to choose from. Many have modern editions freely available if you have an Internet connection. You can find them if you look.

If you want help finding a particular kind of piece, let me know and I will help you!


 

The Early Music space in the SCA is rich in both material and in enthusiasm. Last year at St. Cecilia we had a giant group of musicians sing of Allegri’s Miserere. A few years ago a group got together and put together a performance of the entire Cantigas d’Amigo set. My band is experimenting with performing period works in translation, and it’s been very well received. I love being able to bring sheet music to an event and playing through it with people. I love that people are developing a taste for Early Music.

I would love to see more overlap between the Bardic community and the Early Music community. There’s knowledge in both communities that we could benefit in sharing.

I hope this article inspires all musicians and bards to raise the bar.

Beyond “Bad Bards”: Improving Performance Climate in the SCA

THL Kasha Alekseeva
THL Kasha Alekseeva
This is a guest post from THL Kasha Alekseeva, Baroness of Cynnabar, and renowned performer in the Middle Kingdom. The post is a response to the article “You don’t hate the Bardic Arts, you hate Bad Bards

As RUM’s new Dean of Performing Arts, I used this article as an opportunity to think about the perception of performing arts in the SCA, and the unique challenges it has when compared to other SCA arts and sciences.

This article addresses the issue of people disliking the “bardic arts” and proposes that this is due to unsuccessful performances and to bards who (intentionally or unintentionally) are rude enough to entrap people in their performances. The article also discusses several kinds of less successful bards and encourages the readers to be patient with their shortcomings while they grow in their craft. I think all of these ideas are wonderful.

I love performing arts and want them to succeed in the SCA. And I know that bad reputations and schisms hinder our success. So the article made me start to think about the larger issues involved. If the problem of “hating bardic” can be solved by consideration for others and tolerance, what would specific considerate and tolerant acts look like? How can we turn some of our haters into fans? How can we coexist with those who will always be haters?

I agree with the author of the article that most of the time people who “hate bardic” are frustrated because they have been unwillingly forced into being audience members. But there are other reasons people may have to dislike performances that were not sufficiently discussed in the article (being outside its scope). The two most important, I feel, are 1) boredom or distaste caused by unsuccessful performances and 2) dislike or disapproval of performers’ choices of material, generally because it is “out of period”.

It would be easy to discount these voices as snobs, just as it would be easy to discount the performers they dislike as incompetent. But attitudes like these are unfair to everyone. For me, an inexperienced performer who is struggling to improve is very different from a lazy performer who doesn’t care whether people are enjoying themselves. An audience member who doesn’t feel like commedia dell’arte right now is different from a person who thinks the very existence of theater is an infringement of his or her leisure time.
The “out-of-period” debate is a little stickier, so I’ll talk about it in more detail.

A major question that comes into play here is what “out of period” means and whether there should be value placed on “period” performance material. Most SCA performers–at least those who are not reacting in anger to expectations they feel have been unrealistically imposed upon them–agree that to a certain extent, “period” material is valuable. Most disagree on what the definition of “period material” is and how much it ought to be valued in comparison with other important aspects of performance (e.g., accessibility, ease of transmission, feasibility with modern equipment, financial considerations, the performer’s taste, etc.).

I personally believe that there is room within the definition of “period-correct” for a great deal of leeway. It would be harmful for us to restrict SCA performance to literal, extant pre-seventeenth-century material. Think of it this way: We’d never tell someone that she can only wear an actual extant fifteenth-century garment! Yet I see us do this with musicians (did you know music composition is no longer a category at A&S fairs?) and with dancers (how many of us have danced a newly composed SCA dance?). For performing arts to be meaningful to both performers and audiences, we need to be able to create new art. We need songs and stories that commemorate things that happen to us, not just to King Richard or Charlemagne. We need to encourage creators, because a very important part of what we do in the SCA is re-create!

Of course, I think most SCA artists would agree that the goal is to re-create things in a period style and that “period style” is something we should value. But what does “period style” mean? I can think of various definitions for the term that would be more or less acceptable to me personally. Perhaps it should mean “I replicated materials working-class people had access to in 16th-century London” or “I used a process laid out in such-and-such 14th-century text” or “if a typical tenth-century Spanish monk saw my performance, he wouldn’t have found it strange”. For some of my performances, I prefer that last one. But for others, my definition is something more like “my audience had a reaction that was analagous to the reaction thirteenth-century French courtiers might have had”. All of these definitions (and, I’m sure, many other potential definitions) are valid!

One special challenge of performance is the fact that (as SCA cooks know very well), modern tastes are not necessarily the same as medieval ones. That is NOT to say that medieval performances are unacceptable to a modern audience. What it does mean is that modern audiences, lacking a medieval cultural background, may need to be given some extra information in order to appreciate the piece. That might mean translating the piece into our vernacular (American English, in this case), or handing out program notes to explain the structure of the piece, or teaching the audience the original hymn this song is based on, or even changing the jokes and allusions in the piece to equivalent modern jokes and allusions.

When it comes to unskillful performances, I think it’s important to remember two things. First, everyone starts out unskilled and then gains skill; therefore, in order for skilled performances to happen, unskilled ones must also happen. Second, it is very rude to subject audiences to painful experiences. Balancing these two principles is one of the biggest challenges of the performing arts community. What can we do to navigate this challenge? Below, I’ll talk about some specific actions we can take to foster growing performers while pleasing audiences.

Things Performers Can Do to Boost Performance Quality, Encourage the use of Period Material, and Challenge the Haters

  1. Share access to repertoire and research. When you perform, tell people where your piece comes from. (“This story is from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. There are tons of other great stories in there!”) Post links to monologues or routines, both challenging and beginner-friendly. Blog about the book you LOVE that has all the great reference material in it. Host a challenge and give a book full of potential repertoire as a prize.
  2. Consider that other peoples’ definitions of “period-correct” may have some value. Carefully choose which aspects of your performance are important for you to be accurate about, and respect the performances of others who value accuracy in different aspects. Encourage others to improve the aspects of their performance that are most important to them.
  3. Incorporate “period” material or a “period” process (whatever that means to you) into your performance, and make it interesting and entertaining. Prove both to your audience and to other performers that performances do not have to be obtrusively modern to be relevant and meaningful. Prove both to your audience and to other performers that performances do not have to be indistinguishable from period practice (as though that were even possible) to be virtuosic, beautiful, and important.
  4. Encourage others to genuinely love and want to improve their crafts. Compliment the hard work that goes into perfecting a difficult routine. Ask questions about the research behind a project. Discuss how the performance made you feel and ask what the performer was thinking about while performing. Show that you care and want to know more. When a performer does quality work–accurate, interesting, entertaining, or virtuosic–make sure everyone knows about it.
  5. Realize the limitations of research. There are some societies that we just don’t have that much information about, perhaps because they lacked a way to record performance information, because their records were deliberately destroyed by a subsequent society, or for some other reason. Does that mean that we shouldn’t even attempt to re-create that society’s arts? Not at all! It does mean that we will have to make some guesses, and that not all of those guesses will be able to be backed up by period examples. And that’s okay. (As long as we are not using it as an excuse not to do our best.)
  6. Don’t be the “rude bard”. Performances are by their nature disruptive, and being blindsided by a performer is annoying. Respect your audience, and perform in a location and at a time where they can choose to partake in your performance or not. Advertise your performance, so people know when to come (or when to avoid). If you’re performing and you can see that your audience is bored but cannot leave, cut the performance short.
  7. Remember that there is a difference between a performance and background entertainment. This doesn’t apply equally to all kinds of performance, but it is particularly important for musicians. If your role is to give the scene a medieval feel but not to be a superstar, don’t draw unnecessary attention to yourself. For example, virtuosic monodic arias are inappropriate for background music at feast.
  8. Support each other! If the SCA climate becomes more friendly for one type of performer, it becomes more friendly for all types of performers. We all share some important challenges–for example, the needs for physical space, time, an optimal soundscape, and an interested audience. Supporting each other doesn’t mean you have to like everything your fellow performers do–after all, tastes differ. But it does mean being respectful of performers and performances, reminding event staff to account for performance space and sound requirements, facilitating performance opportunities, and being generous with your knowledge and other resources.

Things Event Staff Can Do to Allow Entertaining Performances to Occur

  1. First and most importantly, provide opportunities to perform! Unlike the practicioners of most other arts and sciences, performers really can’t hone their craft at home. They also can’t practice in their neighbors’ day-camps while holding quiet conversations with others. Performance is loud, messy, distracting, and takes up a lot of space. It requires the tolerance, if not the enthusiasm, of other people. This means that SCA performers do not get enough opportunities to perform. Please think about ways to increase the amount of possible performance time. You can schedule concerts, bardic circles, and exhibitions. You can provide space on-site for spur-of-the-moment entertainment. You can provide music and theater for court and other ceremonies. You can ask whether anyone has a recorder with them before you get out your iPod for dance classes. SCA performance will not improve without an increase in the number of opportunities for SCA performers to perform.
  2. If possible, avoid scheduling performances at the same time as other events that have a huge draw. While we want performances to be optional for audiences, we don’t want to discourage audiences from coming, either. This means don’t schedule the bardic circle at the same time as the ball. It takes attention away from both events, which isn’t fair and causes hurt feelings.
  3. Don’t schedule performances at times and places where the audience is likely to be uninterested in the performance. One venue that I consistently hear complaints about is feast. People typically come to feast to talk with the people around them, not to be continually interrupted by entertainers. When you do schedule performances during feast (or a similar activity), have a handful of performances in a row rather than a performer… a two-minute break… a performer… a two-minute break… a performer… You can see how quickly that gets annoying for people who are trying to have a conversation. Also, use only your very best performers, whom you know are very entertaining and whom you know will be able to be heard and seen throughout the hall. Any time and place where the audience is held captive is not an appropriate venue for beginners to get their feet wet. A hostile audience does not lead to a positive experience for the performer.
  4. Advertise performances! As I mentioned above, this helps people who are interested know when to come. It also helps people who are uninterested know when to avoid the venue. It’s not fair to trap people in long performances they didn’t agree to experience.
  5. Be aware that performances often have unique needs, such as roped-off stages, quietness, controlled climates, changing rooms, soundproof warm-up space, prop storage, etc. Performers may ask for access to electrical outlets, drinking water, or garbage cans. Recording equipment may take up space in the aisle. As much as possible, please be patient and tolerant and accommodate these needs.
  6. If inspired to do so, host an event that focuses on improving the craft of performance. Events like St. Cecilia and Bardic Madness do something amazing for the individual performer as well as for the community of performers. They provide feedback, encouragement, and networking. If your group hosts an event like this, enthusiastically support it!

Because we have to some extent already begun to do some of the things I have mentioned, SCA performances (like everything else in the SCA) are constantly improving and developing. I’ve witnessed some very cool and entertaining performances recently. I’ve also witnessed some that didn’t quite succeed but were done with genuine respect for the material and love of the craft–and I enjoyed those, too.

I want to see others try and fail and try again. I want others to perform, and I want others to enjoy performances, not just for my own sake, but for the sake of my art. Because I will never be able to perform everything myself–but oh how I want everything to be performed!

To see some of Kasha’s work check out her band, Psallite

Temperament

An audio example of what temperament can do to sound.

Tune in Csharp major in Equal Temperament

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Tune in Csharp major in 6th Comma Mean Tone centered around F.

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Grand Day of Tournaments 2014

This post was written around November 23rd, 2014. I just haven’t gotten around to rereading it and posting. Enjoy!

We're going to be Laurels!
We’re going to be Laurels!
So apparently I’m going to be a Laurel…

I guess the place to start is with Closing of the Range. We weren’t intending to go, but were summoned to court, so we made an appearance. It was a chance to try out the garb we have for Martin and also to see if I fit into my old garb and/or can nurse in it. Martin’s garb was fine. Maybe a bit big at the time, but now it’s just about the right size. My garb fit…. sort of. I tried my front lacing cotehardie, and I could get it to tie completely, but it fits only somewhat better than it did when I wore it to Step Spritely last year and was around 3 months pregnant. The main problem, unsurprisingly, is the bust area. Nursing was problematic because the cote is not quite low-cut enough, and lacing is giant pain. Martin didn’t like the clothes either. *Sigh* So basically I need to add a giant slit down the center of my semi-fitted tunics or make new garb.

I opted to make some new garb. I’d been intending to make a couple of viking outfits before Martin was born, but I didn’t get around to it. Now I felt motivated. Of course then I found that my sewing machine, which I had fixed up a few months ago was making knocking sounds and not zig-zagging properly. In fact it hadn’t been zig-zagging well for a while. But I borrowed Arin’s machine, and blasted through making me some viking. I even made some cardwoven trim. The first trim I’ve ever made and then used. It was a threaded in pattern, but still. I listened to the WWI podcast I referenced in the last post while working on it. With a day or two to spare I had OK nursing garb for Grand Day of Tournaments. Yay!

Not yay was that I caught a cold around Wednesday before GDOT. On Saturday I was pretty stuffy but otherwise alright. Given that Robyyan and Fern were coming and Kasha and Ermenrich were being invested there was no way the symtoms I had would keep me from going.

Speaking of Kasha and Ermenrich’s investiture, getting the music to work was far more challenging than anticipated. I think we were up to plan F by the end. Emma and Holly were both sick so couldn’t make it. Before Emma got sick the plan was to play Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus on strings. Emma was going to play the tenor part on gamba and I was going to play the alto. When she got sick the plan was to have Robyyan play the alto on bass recorder and for me to move to the tenor on gamba. I was sad because I’d been practicing the alto part for weeks and I’m not so confident on gamba yet, but I worked on it and was more or less ready by Saturday. Then it turned out that Robyyan had a tenor cornemuse that could play the tenor part at pitch. Yay! Of course now that I’d worked on the tenor part I was a bit rusty on the alto.

The performance went… not so smoothly. Aaron bumped me with his bow which I thought meant we needed to stop. So I stopped and then everyone else stopped. Also we were not together when we stopped anyway. Eventually we restarted, and this time we stayed together until the end. The timing of our ending ended up being about right for the procession.

Kasha and Ermenrich’s investiture was beautiful. They are going to do such a good job as Baron and Baronness. 😀

Then Robyyan got called into court. Of course Aaron and I looked at each other because that’s a bit suspicious. My first thought was that it might be time for one of us get put on vigil. But then I thought maybe he’s getting a Sapphire or something. Although that would be a bit weird to award him in Cynnabar. Then when he begged a boon, I was thinking that I didn’t think he had any other apprentices or protogées. And then Aaron was called into court.

Watching as Aaron was put on vigil
Watching as Aaron was put on vigil
After court people asked me what I was thinking at the point. If I suspected that there’d be further business. Obviously I was very happy for Aaron. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was hoping I’d get called up too. I mean, it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve gotten awards at the same time.

I also thought about how things would change. Would I do anything different? My answer was no. I’d keep to the path I was on. I’d probably get the cookie eventually.

Then Robyyan said he had more business, and at that point I was pretty sure I knew what was next. 😀

After that I was sort of in a daze for the rest of the event. I was really surprised at how long it took to sink in. In fact I think only now it’s starting to feel real.

Needless to say, I was not expecting that to happen at GDOT. I thought we had another couple of years left at least, due to Martin if nothing else. I still had research I was planning to do. I think the fact that I wasn’t expecting it to happen for a while is the cause of it not sinking in. Most other important life events, I’ve either been in control of when they happened or have had plenty of advance warning. With this, one never knows. And one isn’t supposed to seriously plan until one is put on vigil. At least that’s how I’ve felt about it.

Impromptu Dance Band
Impromptu Dance Band
The rest of GDOT went well. Aaron and I got to play some 15th century music with Robyyan, which was oh so nice. Martin got to hear plenty of hurdy gurdy. He’s a pretty lucky baby. Martin enjoyed the event. He loves novelty, and the event provided lots. My garb worked pretty well for nursing. One highlight was seeing Alina and Magda and Gwommy dancing, and wondering who was playing recorder for them only to find that it was my piano student, Cassandra. 😀 Aaron and I didn’t take a Pennsic Pile because we weren’t anticipating having to play any dance music. Oh well. We didn’t have trouble playing from memory.

After GDOT, and after stopping at home to drop off instruments and change, Aaron, Martin, Robyyan, Fern, and I went out to Zingerman’s to celebrate. Tasty! I can’t remember the last time I had a sandwich there.

Over the last week I’ve been frantically trying to do research on Polish 15th and 16th century clothing, because I’d wanted to wear Polish garb for my elevation. Between the Internet and Aaron’s access to the UM library I’ve found enough information to make something approximating Polish clothes, but…. I really need more time to do a good job and from what I can tell the more distinctly Polish clothing has a headdress that would totally covers my ears (which I dislike as a musician) and is associated with old married women. Perhaps I’m old by 16th century standards, but I’d rather wait a little while before wearing that garb. 😛

So instead, I’ve decided to go with 15th century Burgundian. It will be semi-heraldic, which is to say red and white but no ermine and no clarions. And I’ll have a cool hat. That’s the plan anyway. Also there’s an image of a Polish shoemaker’s wife from the 16th century that’s essentially Burgundian, but with a different hat and some holes in the sleeves to let the chemise show through. So I won’t be wearing entirely not Polish clothes…

Aaron and I are having our ceremony together, but we’re having separate vigils. Also we’re planning to have two vigils: one at Pentamere 12th night so local people can come talk to us and one at Tree Girt Sea 12th night where we’re being elevated. Beyond that there will almost certainly be lots of music and dancing at both events. In particular I’m hoping we can make the music playing especially good at Tree Girt Sea for all of the out of town musicians coming to celebrate with us. 😀

Needless to say, I am thrilled and honoured and looking forward to the future. Whee!

How to be a Better Dance Musician

Blurry Photographic Evidence
It’s an Open Band!

I’ve been playing dance music in the SCA for over 7 years now. I’ve led some pits, been second in command of the pit many many time. I’ve been the lone musician playing dance music. I’m in a small dance band. I’ve played for Modern ECD and Contra dances.

In short, I know a thing or two about being a dance musician.

If you’re just beginning playing dance music, this is my advice to you on how to get to be a great, reliable dance musician. The kind of musician that dance masters gravitate toward, and the kind of musician that makes pit leaders happy. The kind of musician that gets asked to lead pits.

Bring your Instruments to Dance Practice

If your local group has a dance practice, you should make every effort to go and play for it.

Dance practice is the best place to learn to play dance music. The Best. Hands Down. Why?

  1. There are more dance practices than there are events with dancing. The more often you play for dancers, the better a musician you will be.
  2. Dance practice is an appropriate place to learn unfamiliar music. At an event you will likely only play the dance once, and you’ll want to play it well. The event is not the place to sight-read new dance music. It’s the time to perform dance music.
  3. You will probably be allowed to play through the piece at practice while the dancers are running through the dance. At an event, that’s gauche.
  4. The dancers will be more patient with you at dance practice than at an event. As long as you’re playing something danceable, the dancers will probably not be overly upset at practice if you accidentally forget a repeat. Truthfully they’ll probably be OK if you forget a repeat at a ball too, but it’s far more OK at a practice. The purpose of dance practice is to get better at dancing. This involves making mistakes. Dancers will realize the same is true for the musicians. (That said, do your best.)
  5. There will almost certainly be fewer musicians at a dance practice than at a ball, meaning the dancers will depend on you. This is a good thing. It’s very motivating. It will make you a better dance musician. In a large open band you don’t have that same motivation because there are a lot of people covering your part.

So, if your group has a regular dance practice, make every effort to go. And when you go, always play at dance tempo. I hear way too much whining about how dance music is too fast. Deal.

If you’re not quite up to playing at dance tempo, and you’re the only musician at practice, play along to the recording the dance master brought. There’s a good chance the recording is in the same key as your sheet music. Play as many notes of the piece as you can. If you keep playing you’ll eventually get better. If there are other musicians at practice, muddle along with them. Get as many notes as you can. Eventually you’ll get it.

If you’re frustrated at not being able to play all of the notes, use that frustration to motivate yourself to practice at home.

Learn to Dance

While you’re at practice, take the time to learn some of the dances.

By dancing the dances you develop an intuition about tempo. Roadmaps become easier to remember. You learn about regional variations. You’ll learn how to make dance music fun to dance to. You’ll get to know the people in the dance community.

Not to mention that there may be times when a private band is playing for all or part of a dance. If you know the dances you can still do something at the ball.

Pick a ball with an open pit. Work on the music for that ball.

When I’d been playing recorder for only a few months, I moved to the Barony of Bryn Gwlad in Austin, TX for a co-op tour at AMD. In late winter the Barony celebrated Candlemas, and there was a ball in the evening. I think there were maybe 10 dances in that ball. I worked to be able to play every one of the dances. Looking back, I believe that ball, more than anything else, jump-started my dance musician skills.

I was lucky in that the other dance musicians were not so far ahead of me that they were bored of playing through dance music at rehearsal. The fact that we were all struggling together helped a lot. But I think just the fact that I had an achievable goal was really helpful. I learned all of those pieces, and learned them well enough that when I encountered them back home I was solid.

So, pick a ball. Plan to be able to play 10 or so pieces well. By well, I mean you learn the melody well enough that if no other musicians showed up you could play those dances for the dancers.

If there are more than 10 pieces in the ball, either sight read or dance the rest.

If you want advice on which dances to include in your list of dances to learn, ask your dance master which dances are the most popular. Any dance master worth their salt will be able to give you a good answer.

Live in the Dance Tent for at Least one War

If you really want to get good at playing dance music, spend a war just playing dance music. Live in the dance tent. Play for classes. Play at every ball you can. Stay up late and play for the dance geeks. If the evening balls have private bands, go dance and listen to the band. Get to know the dancers. Get to know the other musicians.

I go to Pennsic. For the first few Pennsics I attended, I spent a lot of time in dance tent. I played for classes. I played in the pits. I stayed up late in the hopes of getting to play with musicians who knew what they were doing. All of this helped me to be a better dance musician.

If you have other interests, but would really like to improve at dance music, sacrifice one war to focus on dance music. Seriously. If you’re spend a fair amount of your war on non-dance music stuff, you’re missing a valuable, fun opportunity to up your game.

And honestly, if you want to get very good, skip the large open band parts. Play for the classes. Nap during the beginning of the balls, and show up to the dance tent late. The times when the pit is tiny is where the real action is.

Listen to Dance Recordings

Here are some bands you should be familiar with:

Why listen to recordings? You’ll get an ear for what good dance music sounds like. You’ll get embellishment ideas. You’ll learn how to make a dance like Picking of Sticks sound fresh with each repeat.

Simplify, Embellish, Improvise

If you spend a lot of time playing dance music, you’ll soon find there are a number of tunes you have memorized. Or at least there are few tunes you now find boring, but are still asked to play. What do you do?

The answer is start playing with them. How many notes can you remove and still have a recognizable melody? Where can you add extra notes? If you’ve been listening to any of the dance albums listed above, you’ll have some ideas on appropriate extra notes to add and take away. (Mostly add.)

The place to experiment is at dance practice. The dancers at a practice just need music that’s danceable. A sour note here or there won’t ruin the dance. Eventually you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t.

For more ideas on appropriate embellishments, read through some Ortiz.

That’s it. Play for dancers as often as you can. Focus on opportunities where the dancers depend on you. The end.