Performing at Pennsic

Pennsic is an event that has been on my bucket list for probably 20 years. This year, the stars and planets all finally aligned and on relatively short notice, I took the leap. Not only did I go for the full event, but I also ended up performing three times on stage and once for a podcast!

If you’ve never been, Pennsic is huge. It’s bigger than you’re thinking huge. It’s so big that I guarantee there were areas I never saw in the 13 days I was there and amazing music that I missed simply because I didn’t know where to find them. That said, I did not lack for quality entertainment. I would often hear musicians practicing in their camps as I took my nightly walk around Cooper’s Lake and quickly learned that the Bog side of Pennsic was where to find excellent Middle Eastern music. I often had trouble deciding whether I wanted to drum, zill, or dance more when I was down there. In equal measure, the best of the European and folk style of music that I play was found on the other end of site in (or near) the Performing Arts tent in Pennsic University.

Pennsic introduced me to an amazing crowd of performers from across the lands in a wide array of talent, skill, and quality. It also showed me that I’ve come a long way as a performer in the last two years. I still get nervous and I still make mistakes, but it doesn’t necessarily cripple me the way it used to. A good portion of the credit for that I will lay at Thomas’s feet. Without his guidance and support these past two years, I have no doubt I’d still be hiding in the shadows as much as possible.

At a very large bardic circle on the third night, my Pennsic debut as it were, I completely botched up the lyrics to a song I’ve been singing regularly for two years. Instead of stopping and apologizing the way I used to, I just kept playing and gracefully ended the song at the first opportunity. If you didn’t know the song, and maybe only one or two of them did outside of the bards with whom I was travelling, you might not have known that it wasn’t supposed to be that way. The ultimate goal is, of course, to turn out a perfectly transcendent performance, but how often does that actually happen? Almost never. Which is why the practice is so critical. Only because of the amount of time I’d previously spent with the song was I able to split off a portion of my brain to come up with a quick dismount while the rest of me carried on with the show. In the end, I was simultaneously disappointed in having shorted the song and proud of the way I’d hidden it.

My first stage performance was several days later, where I sang Flower of the Free to a small audience in the middle of the afternoon. On my birthday. Admittedly, if the crowd had been bigger I would have been visibly nervous but, as it was, we were mostly bards performing for each other. You would think that performing in front of people who know what to look for would make me more nervous rather than less, but there was a camaraderie about it that was very calming. Still, I flubbed a few chords, but I just kept the lyrics rolling and the nervousness in my hand worked itself out in short order with the help of a friendly smile or two in the audience showing me that I was still doing fine. In an act of self-redemption, this is the song I recorded for Gideon’s Live from Pennsic episode of the Knowne World Bardcast later in the week. That time, I got it right. (By the way, this is my third Bardcast recording. I’m also on episodes 1 and 2 of season three, so check those out, too!)

The next night I got to perform in an hour long concert with Cantore Borealis, a group I got volunteered into at the beginning of the event. This was my chance to sing harmony! I love harmonizing and don’t often get to indulge in it, so it was a joy to be able to come up with harmonies during our practice sessions in camp and watch them bring new depth to the pieces. I also got to do my first drum accompaniment on two pieces. I’m still just a very basic drummer, but choosing and holding down a steady beat was quite satisfying. One of the later pieces we did was a ballad I wrote a year ago called While We Dally, with me front and center and the rest of the group harmonizing behind me. Again, I flubbed a few chords, but I soldiered on and didn’t let it bother me because I needed all my concentration to get through the song with the unfamiliar harmonies behind me. I don’t think I’ve ever had a backup choir before. It was a little surreal but I think I’d like to try it again sometime. The bigger error I made during this concert though was accidentally stepping on a solo with some harmony during a different song. It wasn’t a big deal in the end, but I learned from it that I should have committed instead of fading back, which only made the audience realize that I’d made a mistake.

My final stage performance was a duet with Dahrien on She Sails, a song he wrote years ago and which he, Thomas, and I polished up last year. It’s a lovely piece and I love singing it. He’d added a new verse at the last minute, so I had to perform on book for that portion but it was more important to not forget the lines in this case. What I wouldn’t give for a photographic memory sometimes. My biggest challenge here was keeping up with Dahrien’s voice. He projects like an opera singer and, while I can generally be heard when I want to be, I don’t have his level of volume. Yet. Of course, if I’d tried, we would also have completely drowned out the guitar. I suspect Dahrien did that anyway all on his own. But I’m told I made him sound pretty, so there’s that.

My big takeaway from watching all the other performers at Pennsic is stage presence. Without fail, my favorite performances were all the ones where the artists just completely owned the space they were in, whether they were dancing around and incorporating their songbook into the performance or standing boldly in place and keeping time with a hand on the thigh. Every time, they were completely present and committed. I might have to fake that confidence for a while, but I expect I’ll get there.