You've made up your mind: you want to be a bard. Or maybe a troubador, or a skald, or a minstrel: some sort of solo period performer. "Bard" is the accepted Society catch-all phrase for that, even if it's about as correct as plastic armor.
The traditional branches of the SCA's bardic arts are poetry, storytelling, and song. Instrumental music is sometimes added to song, and recently we've seen a virtual explosion of jugglers, magicians, and other sorts of performers. Welcome to the club.
Chances are, you'll change and grow as a bard the longer you're at it. Your performance specialties, your style, and your preferred venues may change. But, as food for thought, let's look at some options. My hope is to illuminate options, so you can make an informed decision about what you want to do, right now. Nothing says you can't revisit that decision as often as you like.
Performance SpecialitiesFirst, I profess utter ignornance on all "street" performance types - the aforementioned jugglers, magicians, and so forth. I'm afraid I can't say much about that, except that there are some great classes at Pennsic on the topic and information on the SCA Minstrel Home Page.
Singing is, in today's SCA, often considered one of the core activities of the bard. Most voice teachers say that anyone can sing, although some voices are nicer to hear than others. A singer always has her instrument with her: its easy to transport and works in all weathers. And there's a wealth of material - period, traditional, modern - out there, on the Internet, on recordings, in other bards' heads.
Storytelling is perhaps the most-maligned bardic art. This is largely because people who would like to be performers but who aren't comfortable singing decide to tell stories. There is much more to telling a story than just talking! Novices sometimes ramble on in a monotone drone, far exceeding their audience's attention span. But a skilled storyteller is a joy to hear and watch! If you undertake storytelling, be sure to practice just as hard as you would with any song. It is not easier or simpler than any other bardic art - it is just different.
Instrumental music occupies a strange place in Scadian life. More instrumental music at events would be wonderful, and whether it is supplied by a consort or by a soloist is incidental. But most modern folks are trained to consider instrumental music to be "background music" and have a hard time devoting their full attention to such a performance (except, perhaps, at a bardic circle). If this doesn't bother you or bruise you ego, go for it! I have many times been later complimented for harp music during feast that I thought was totally ignored. People hear, even if they don't stare in silence.
Poetry, perhaps considered the most noble bardic art of all in certain places in period, is perhaps seen the least in SCA bardic. Possibly this is because poetry has gotten a bad reputation as something forced down one's throat during high school English. But poetry has the same potential to be as moving and powerful as any other form of solo entertainment. While a poet might not be able to provide "background noise" like a musician, they can certainly "seek and entertain" as a storyteller can. You could, for instance, memorize three sonnets and recite them to three lovely ladies (or lords) at an event. They will surely remember it!
StyleThere are many, many components to style. In the SCA Bardic Arts, perhaps none are so hotly debated as "Is it period?" That is to say, is it really medieval or Renaissance?
If you think of "period-ness" as a line, envision "Pure Period" far out on the right, and "All Modern" on the left. Both have their problems. Many Scadians consider "Pure Period" to be boring or stuffy. While this is far from the case, as an entertainer, you have a certain desire to accomodate the tastes of your audience. And, really, nearly no one wants to hear fifteen minutes of oration in a language they don't understand.
Now, I've seen some "All Modern" performers get great reactions from their audiences. Filk, dirty drinking songs, filk, Monty Python, filk... you get the idea. But we're in the SCA for a reason, and part of that reason is to re-create the ambiance of the Middle Ages. Not everything is appropriate, no matter how funny it is.
Most Scadian performers walk a middle line, somewhere between the two extremes. The most common compromise lies in learning "traditional" material, especially for singers. These are Child ballads, Irish fight songs, and bawdy tunes which date from the 18th - 20th centuries. And despite the best hand-waving of some apologists, no, sorry, music did change between 1200 and 1600. You can cite oral traditional all you like: it's still not period.
But that's (for most people) okay. It's close enough. It sounds about right. I've heard modern jokes re-cast in medieval terms, and seen an 18th century bawdy song re-written as an Internet forward about the Clintons. They work. They keep the illusion. Perhaps sadly, many Scadians can't tell the difference anyway.
If, bless you, you wish to undertake the education of your fellow re-enactor as well as his entertainment, please do so! There is a wealth of period poetry, music, and tales which run the gamut from bawdy to epic, from hilarious to tragic. You may need to use a translation (or twist an existing translation so its scans to the music) or edit a long romance to fit the modern five-minute attention span limit, but you can find real, period things people will want to hear!
VenueThe bardic circle is the most performer-friendly venue in the SCA. These are gatherings of performers and listeners where the express purpose is to sit quietly and listen to the performances. Some will have a rotation schedule, where everyone who wishes takes a turn in order around the circle. Others are more free-for-all, and the would-be performer must stand up quickly and claim the space before someone else does. The circles are usually somewhat small and very friendly, especially towards beginners. They can, unfortunately, sometimes be hard to find. Even when an event states that there will be a bardic circle, that sometimes means that there will be a place for bards to gather if they want to, but nothing has really been organized.
Events offer some interesting opportunities. "Seek and Entertain" is not too common here in the East and in Atlantia, but the idea is rolling around. It requires a certain amount of chutzpah - essentially, the performer wanders the event site, asking random passer-by if they would like a story, poem, or song. (Some bards don't ask, and just launch into something). If this seems too bold, there's the "Safe Corner" approach. Gather some other performers, if you can, and set up a blanket or other marker (it is probably polite, in most cases, to check with the autocrat first). Occupy that spot and do your thing. Interested parties may stop to listen, and your fixed location will make it easier for others to find you later.
Feasts are one of the places Scadians tend to expect entertainment, but it's one of the worst venues we've got. There's a more extensive article on performing at feast here on my site, if this interests you. In short, it's crowded, noisy, and people are distracted by conversations and food. It can be done - but it's a challenge.
Competitions are usually rare events in the life of a bard. While fighters, fencers, and even archers may see many tournaments and melees in a year, the bard is likely to only find a few bardic contests - perhaps the Kingdom and Baronial Bardic Championships. With some additional effort, bards could enter their works into an Arts and Sciences competition (printed up, perhaps), although they will be at a disadvantage. Ours is a performance art, and static evaluation doesn't really do it justice.
Theme events are possibly the most rare of all. Harper's Retreat in the East Kingdom is locally famous for providing a weekend of harp-related activities. Occassionally, a themed event will also sponsor a themed bardic activity - love poems at a Valentine's Day event, for instance. Scholas and Universities also often have classes on bardic subjects. These aren't venues so much as they are learning opportunities.
In Closing...As nearly as I can tell, most performers in the SCA are singers with a largely "traditional" repertoire. Most also carry a few period and a few modern songs in their heads, for that very formal feast or that very informal, drunken bardic circle. (There's a time and a place for everything, after all).
That said, we could use some variety! Never feel that because you can't or won't sing, you can't be a bard. Find something else that calls to you - an instrument, a stirring tale, a wistful poem - and present it to us with all the enthusiasm you bring to it. We'll all be the richer for it.