Techniques — Noel Stallard, Bush Poetry Performance Tutorial & Techniques

There is no more significant point I will make today than this.
If you do not understand the meaning, action, emotion, characters of that particular poem all the techniques of presentation will not allow you to present the poem well.

Is it a Narrative? — Descriptive? — Expositive (point of view)?
Is your presentation for general entertainment or for competition?

Competition — consider
(a) inbuilt variety of emotion, pace, action, characters
(b) different characters to the narrator
(c) peaks of suspense
(d) “something different” — take a risk

Most of the competitors will perform at a high standard. When you lose it is not that you necessarily have performed poorly but often that the winner had matter and presentation that was more moving, more interesting, more suspenseful, more original, more humorous.

When you perform you take your audience to the realm of the poem with all its action, emotion and characters. Accurate memorising helps you hold your audience in this realm until you have finished. When you lose-your-lines you break this realm of illusion and your audience become focused on you and your pause or confusion rather than on what you have created and while you might take them back to the poem you can never really regain the initial impact that you had created. It is as if you create an illusion, as in a mirror, reflecting the images you are presenting and a loss of memory smashes that mirror; and we all know how hard it is to put those pieces back together.

This is why memorisation is so important in presentation.
How Do You Memorise?

Short and Often
For most of us this process requires Learn — test recall — Relearn. The more frequently you get it right the better chance you have of retaining the verses. I can only say what helps me and that is 15 to 20 minute sessions. Memorising for an hour is not very productive.

Use the Same Script
In the memorising process you will image where on the page certain events occur particularly at the top and bottom of pages and this can help when you are struggling with memory recall. If you use different scripts you are confusing your memory banks as to what is where.

Tape Recorder.
A portable tape recorder will enable you to test your recall and also check it with the original script. This is very helpful with regards accuracy in memorisation. Be very strict on yourself with regards accuracy. You owe it to the poet whose work you are memorising to recall what he/she intended not what you fabricate. You will also find that when you have to make a correction to what has been incorrectly memorised then the memory bank is confused as to which is the correct recall.

To a Mirror
When you believe you “have-it-off” it can help performing it to a mirror. An audience is a natural distraction to any speaker especially when what you are saying is memorised and not being read. Having to look at an image in the mirror simulates having to have eye contact with an audience.

Generally once you’ve got it, there is a need to perform it regularly in varying situations. Different rooms, on the train, in the yard, waking up, going to sleep. If you can’t recall some line or word then fix it straight away. The more frequently you get it correct in an audience situation the more confident you become about performing it any where, any time. For competition, select at least two weeks ahead what you intend to perform and perform these several times a day prior to the comp. You have enough pressure concentrating on how you are to present without worrying about what you are to present.

All the preamble should do is set the mood for what is to follow. If it is a reflective poem then the preamble creates a reflective mood that will complement the poem.

If it is humour then you need something light and funny that is relevant to the poem. The poem tells the story not the preamble. A good preamble would be 30 to 45 seconds. Your preamble needs to be memorised. It should be seen as part of the memorised performance. If you try to ad lib you will inevitably go too long, too short or “um” and “ah” yourself through three minutes of irrelevant drival and get most of your audience off side before you start the poem.

Sounds need to be clearly enunciated. Generally Australians have “lazy lips” which means we neglect to use both lips when forming the desired word sounds. If you watch people speak you will notice how many do not use the top lip when forming word sounds. With public speakers and entertainers it is essential our diction is clear without being affected. Our audience gets one chance to hear what we are saying and there are few things more frustrating for audiences than to not understand clearly what the performer is saying.

This is what you “lean on” when speaking. Not every word gets the same emphasis. There is no one-way with emphasis. It is up to the individual to interpret the poem and what in each verse should be emphasised and what should be left unemphasised. Volume is relevant to emphasis.

This is the tone of voice that you use. While volume is relevant there are also sounds that lend themselves to particular tones. The guttural sounds of “k” and “g” are associated with a harsh tone while the “l” “f” and “s” sounds are generally more soothing. This is helpful to know as a writer of verse when you want to create a particular mood in your poem.

This is the rise and fall of the voice with respective punctuation.
For a full stop or a colon the voice pitch falls as it complements the conclusion of the idea being expressed.
For a comma or question mark the thought process is incomplete so the pitch rises suggesting more is to come. Because our bush poetry is in repeated patterns of syllables (metres), the danger is that we allow this pattern to dominate the intonations that we use. This can result in a “sing-song” inflection that becomes very boring and annoying to a listening audience. It’s the story, the action, the emotion of what we are saying that the audience want to be conscious of and not the technique used to present these. The rhyme and the metre will have their automatic emphasis because of their innate repetition of sound or syllables.
Avoid leaning on the rhyme and leaning on the metre.

For most performances you will have a microphone that will allow you to be heard. If there is a sound man controlling the sound he should be able to adjust the volume you present so that it is comfortable for the listening audience so long as you stay with the mic. If the console is fixed then it is up to you to ensure you are not too loud or too soft. Most mics are multi-directional; which means they will pick up sounds from their front and from their sides. This gives you some leeway. If you are first up and the sound is fixed then make sure you test the mic. If you are following others observe whether it is better to have the mic at your mouth or a short distance away. A good technique, if the sound will allow, is to have the mic on your chin. This means that it does not matter where your head moves in your presentation the mic will follow.

Holding the mic does restrict your hand gestures so you have to work out whether of not the mic-in-its-stand is better for your poem.
Having the mic-in-its-stand restricts your lateral movement as you can not be heard if you get away from the mic.
When you are researching your poem look for places where relevant variations of volume can be used. Increasing or decreasing volume is only appropriate if it is relevant to the action or emotion of the poem.

Speed Kills! This applies when presenting a poem. Generally foreign people will tell us that Australians are rapid speakers and we will become more rapid when we are nervous. You will have rehearsed the poem (hopefully) many, many times but your audience get one chance to hear it and you need to give them an appropriate pace and clarity for them to comprehend what you are saying.
You control the poem. It does not control you.
The more confident you are with what you are saying the more in control you are.
In most poems there will be opportunities for variations in pace. Here again knowing your poem will tell you what action or emotion needs the appropriate pace. Consider pause. When relevant it is a very effective tool in creating emphasis, holding attention, regaining attention. In humour the pause to allow audience to laugh is essential.

Keep them simple. Whether you intend them or not an audiences will interpret your gestures as being relevant, irrelevant or simply a distraction. As a performer you only have your voice and body language to convey what you are saying and an audience will expect the appropriate use of these. Be consistent with the illusions you create and any accents that are relevant to the characters you create.

When time is a factor in competition give yourself a comfortable buffer.
With humour you may get more laughs than you expected or with a serious poems you may make more of an emotional scene than what you rehearsed without an audience. Generally you can not afford a time penalty and still be competitive with the high standard of performers today. If you are penalized remember no body is to blame but yourself.

An audience should know that your presentation has come to its conclusion. Generally you achieve this by deliberately slowing down what you’ve are saying until you stop. It is like slowly applying the brake with your car.