Bright Ideas and True Confessions: How and What to Do and Why

Arts and Sciences

The Most Efficient And Informal Bardic Competition

I joined the Society because of my interest in music. I started learning ballads seven years before I joined. I had played the recorder for four years, and was doing performances in costume, and recorder presentations for schools. I had been in All State Choir and school chorus and hated the modern stuff but loved the Palestrina. When I came in, bardic circles were the entertainment at events. Grand Outlandish would have impromptu circles Friday nights which would last three or four hours, and the formal, scheduled circle on Saturday which would last at least six hours (with a break for the kissing auction). Whoever was left on Sunday night would get together to repeat the best songs they had heard over the weekend.

When I told this story to a young duke in our kingdom, he said "No way," and he meant it. There had never, in his experience been a long bardic circle at Outlandish, let alone three long, centralized sessions. He didn't believe it. We got to talking about the first Outlandish he went to, and it was the first year of the drums.

Drums are getting smaller; bardic circles are coming back. I was assigned a few years ago to run a bardic competition on Saturday night at Outlandish, but to make it as fast as possible because it would be a strain on the drummers to wait too long before they could drum again. (I had said I wouldn't do it if there was going to be drumming at the same time.)

In just over two hours we ran about 65 entrants, in an aesthetically pleasing order, with all pieces announced in advance, with over 20 judges, and without requiring advanced sign-up[1]. I waited until morning to tally the votes, and announced them at morning court. People chose from the available prizes, in the order in which they placed (by vote count). It worked! I surprised myself.

Reading this article will take more work than running the contest will. Feel free to borrow as much or as little of this as you want. If you make improvements on the system, I would love to know about them.

Advance Work:

Print sign-up cards (heavy paper is best, so you can shuffle them quietly during the competition, and because they need to be handled several times.

Option: With enough volunteers,or enough time, you could do these all by hand, rather than print or copy.

Decide on categories. (see below for suggestions)

Print judge's ballots. I've used long strips of card stock or heavy stock. The first couple of times I printed on the end with a little home screen printer I have. You could photocopy on 8.5 x 11" cardstock, and either cut it in two strips or leave it whole. Strips are easy for outdoor lap-writing. The problem with regular-weight paper is that people won't be able to write on it without a desk, and by firelight they would see the markings from the other side, the pencil would poke holes in it, etc. Use heavy paper if you can.

Option: You could do these all by hand too, pretty easily.

Gather up lots of pencils.

Be sure you have a time and a place scheduled, and have someone in charge of getting the fire lit, and announcing that it's time to gather.

The Theory:

One entrant might win more than one category. One piece can be judged best in more than one category. One member of an ensemble can win a category on his own (such as best male vocal) and someone's accompanist might win best instrumental..

Entrants don't need to know what they're doing until just before the contest. Entrants can join late without ruining anything.

Judges don't need to know if they can judge until just before the contest. They do need to be able to stay for the whole contest, but if someone has to leave early, he can just destroy his ballot and it's no problem. You can have as many judges as you have ballots and paper for, or as few as one. The more judges you have, the fairer the choices should be, but don't worry if you only have a few judges. If you only have two or four, though, either give two prizes in case of tie, or decide a way to have a tie-breaker. I don't think this will be a problem.

Remind the entrants that such competitions are always subjective no matter what safeguards are in place, and that we might never pick the piece that is The Best, but the one the judges liked best that day.

You can have several categories all going at once. The judges just need enough light to take notes in. Since there's not a big old form to fill out on every entrant, it won't take long. Judges don't need to be taught their forms, because they can make up their own format as they go.

How To Schedule:

Performer(s) ____________________________________________________

Home Group and Kingdom:______________________________________________

NAME OF PIECE ____________________________________________________

CIRCLE ONE, PLEASE: (this is solely for scheduling performances in a pleasing order, and not a declaration of category; one entry can qualify for many categories at once)

  • tale or poem
  • instrumental only
  • unaccompanied vocal
  • accompanied vocal
  • other _________________

After each entry is categorized by the entrant, just shuffle the cards in such a way that two tales don't come together, nor two a capella pieces (unaccompanied vocals), etc. If what you have the most of is accompanied vocal, you might need to have those be every other piece, but you can arrange them quickly and mechanically, without having to consider what the pieces are about, or who's best, or what's longest. You don't have to know those things. If someone comes late, put his card between two that don't match his. Since you haven't numbered your entrants (and don't except in progress), you haven't ruined anything.

Tell people that you'll announce them three performances before their spot so that they can prepare. If someone wants to come by and see how far down the list he is, you can flip through and show him, but tell him the order might change a little.

You might want to have an assistant for announcing the pieces, or you might do it yourself. Just before the first piece say, "Beau and Elinor, prepare yourselves; Leif make ready (or ''ll be next'); The next performer is Allegra, performing Lady Maisry. This is entry #1." While she's getting set to go, say, "Leif make ready ; Beau and Elinor, prepare yourselves." (or 'Leif will be next, followed by Beau and Elinor.')

Give the judges a ballot with plenty of room to take notes (or extra cardstock) with something like this on it: [2]

  • ____best male vocal (may be either one voice in an ensemble or a soloist)
  • ____best female vocal (same as above)
  • ____best tale (either a spoken or sung tale)
  • ____"best transporter" (most evocative of the period)
  • ____best instrumental (might be an ensemble, or a solo, or an accompaniment)
  • ____best original piece (need not be performed by the author; best if recent)
  • ____most amusing
  • ____best performer (any criteria)
  • ____piece we'd most like to hear again and again

The judges don't have to write down or remember the name of the performer or the piece. They only need "#1." Some people have turned in their note-taking portion and comments too, and most of them had been putting enough information down that they could remember what they liked best about the piece, but it's not important to repeat the performer's name or spell the name of the song or any of that.

As the contest continues, you'll only announce the name of the piece once, and then as you know the number is coming up (they've already been told to make ready) you can put the number on the corner of the entry card.

At the end the judges will probably ask questions like "What was #17?" and you can flip quickly to it and name the piece and performer, or "What number was Rowazna's dance?" and another judge can tell them that. At this point you can either open the bardic for general performance, and let the judges sit as long as they need to, or you can request repeats of some of the best-received entries.

To tally, you only need to list the numbers which got votes. Put tic-marks by the number for each additional vote (so a number plus one tic is two votes), and when you have the winner, get a judge's form and put the winning number by each category. Before court, pull the cards of the winners and put the number of votes received somewhere on there.

Lay down all the prizes you have (at least one for each category-more if you have them). Let the person who received the most votes choose first; second most choose second, etc. You won't announce the winners in the order they appear on the ballot; set the cards in order of the number of votes received. You might announce in court who came in second in each category too.


  • Judges pay more attention than they would if they were just observing.
  • Entrants can also judge.
  • Entries don't have to be categorized in advance. Someone entering a piece which could fall into two different categories doesn't have to pick one or the other.
  • It's not much work for the organizers or judges.
  • The method makes for such a group effort that everyone involved feels involved in the process.
  • Many people win, not just one.
  • Sign-up is loose, and late people aren't sent away.
  • All of the traditional advantages of bardic circles and of formal competitions are retained.

If something here isn't clear, email me. [3] (AElflaed/Sandra)

Some of these methods could probably be applied to other kinds of contests-judging foods at a pot-luck kind of feast or judging best campsite by asking lots of people at the event to go out and judge. At an event with only about 50 people once we asked every single person there what their favorite costume was on Saturday evening, and we emerged with clear first and second place winners. It's really pretty special to get an award decided by the "whole town" that way.



[1] The next year I think we did about fifty in an hour and fourty-five minutes, and we had even more judges, because they'd had fun the year before. The number of judges won't slow you down, in fact having so many keeps any of them from feeling crucial enough to say "Wait for me."

[2] You can have fewer categories, or more, and especially if you're doing these by hand you could leave out all explanations and "best" so that it just says "male vocal, female vocal, tale, instrumental" etc. I left out "filk" because I'm not too fond of it. At a local event you could have a "best thing written just for this contest" or you could have a theme category. "Best dragon tale" was a regular in Lonely Mountain, and they always allowed stories or poems to qualify for that.

Copyright © by Sandra Dodd, 1991
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