Don’t forget the lyrics!

The whole essence of learning lines is to forget them so you can make them sound like you thought of them that instant. Glenda Jackson (LH: This is as true for singing as it is for acting.)

Techniques for memorising lyrics and songs

A recurring nightmare for many singers is one where they forget the lyrics mid song. I know I’ve certainly woken up in a cold sweat after having that kind of a dream and just before an important gig.

Forgetting words in front of an audience can be a very traumatic experience for a performer. It may even lead to performance anxiety if not addressed. Barbra Streisand is a famous example of someone whose live performing career came to a 27-year halt as a result of this experience, “In front of 135,000 in Central Park – my free concert in Central Park – I forgot the words and it sort of triggered this feeling that I would forget the words… I didn’t perform again until they discovered Teleprompters.”

Barbra’s reaction was extreme, but not isolated. The lesson to be learnt here is that if it can happen to such a seasoned and experienced performer it can happen to anyone.

There are strategies that you can engage to reduce the possibility of forgetting words. As with anything, practice will increase your chance of success. There are many memorisation methods for you to explore, and there is no ‘one’ absolute right way. You will need to find out what suits you best.

The important thing to understand is that data can only be stored into your long-term memory through meaningful association, repetition and rehearsal. So don’t wait until the last minute to memorise the lyrics, unless of course you are blessed with a photographic memory!

For those of you who have the normal memory capacity I have collected a few strategies to help with memorising songs musically and lyrically. Make sure you give yourself adequate time to learn the words and choose a time and environment where you can be undisturbed whilst you focus on the task. Have fun and make the experience as personal and meaningful as you can, this will enhance your capacity to keep the information in your long-term memory.

1. Looping

Listen repeatedly to the song. As well as helping you learn the lyrics this will also help you with the melody, rhythms, phrasing, structure, the instrumentation and ‘feel’ of the song. With iPods and MP3 players it is easy to put the song on repeat, pop on the headphones and ‘let the music play’.  This method is especially useful to people who tend to learn aurally (by ear).

2. Write out the song form

Map out the order of verses, bridges, choruses, repeated sections, instrumental sections and what happens at the end of the song. If you know how, be specific with the amount of beats/bars of rest or instrumental solos within the form of the song. The more information you have the better. Here’s an example of what this might look like:

  •              8 bars of Intro
  •              8 bars Verse 1
  •              8 bars Verse 2
  •              8 bars Chorus 1
  •              16 bars Instrumental
  •              8 bars chorus
  •              8 bars verse 3
  •              8 bars chorus x2
  •              8 bars outro…fade

3. Writing out the lyrics by hand

By listening through headphones you can focus on a range of details as you write out the lyrics. Also make notes on factors such as timing, phasing, breath points, rhythmical accents, where harmonies occur, dynamics, pronunciation etc. Once you break it down you will discover that the song is not as hard as you first envisaged and that there is not as much to commit to memory as you first might have thought.

3. Sing along with the recording

Start off by singing the whole song with the recording. Then test yourself by pausing in different places whilst continuing to sing. See how far you can get before you need to refer back to the recording or written lyrics.

4. Recite the lyrics

Speak the lyrics out loud as if you were giving a speech. Try to incorporate the rhythmic phrasing as you recite the lyrics to help you remember the rhythm of the melody. Repeat often; deliver the spoken lyrics to friends and family as if you were having a conversation with them; recite them in the shower; as you walk (use your walking pace to set the rhythm) or just as you fall asleep. Test yourself by starting in different places in the song e.g. the bridge or last verse and then carry on till you get back to the starting place.

5. Attach imagery to the lyrics

It may be useful to imagine a storyline to go with the lyrics. Make it as personal, visual and vivid as you can. Imagine your very own ‘film’ being played as you sing the song. This is especially useful to people who tend to learn visually (by watching/seeing).

6. Create a storyboard

Try sketching out the story in animation form. It doesn’t matter if you only have basic drawing skills. It’s the action of drawing and thinking about the picture that will help get the lyrics into the long-term memory banks.  This is especially useful to people who tend to learn visually and kinesthetically (through touch).

7. Put it into action

Act out the story; use physical movement to express different lines and words. Use your whole body to express the emotional context of the song, move around in an exaggerated way as you act out the song. Get physical! Some of the movements might be too exaggerated for the stage but fine for rehearsal.

8. Sing in a random order

Sing the song A Cappella (without the accompaniment), start in the middle and continue until you get back to that same point, as you did with the reciting exercise. In addition you could try singing the sections backwards e.g. last verse first, second last verse, middle eight etc.

8. While you sleep

Play a looped recording of the song while you are sleeping. Some say that the brain can learn whilst sleeping.

9. Performance preparation

The most common reason for forgetting lyrics is Stage Fright, also known as Performance Anxiety. The mind may go ‘blank’ in this condition and then the anxiety that follows this state compounds the problem. If this is an issue for you then make sure you address the problem. It probably won’t go away by itself and may get worse if not addressed. There are many strategies, treatments and therapies that will help you overcome performance anxiety; from relaxation to rituals to hypnotherapy. I will be covering Performance Anxiety, what it is, why it happens and how to overcome it in a later blog.

10. It’s not the end of the world

Even if you do experience a moment of lapse, so what? Will it kill anyone? No! Move on and focus on the moment, don’t dwell on the past. Make a mental note to address it in your next practice session. The audience are generally very forgiving and like it when an artist shows that ‘they are only human too’. Do you think Barbra’s fans stopped buying her albums or going to her concerts because she forgot a few lines? Exactly, so get over it!

I do know of singers who use lyrics on stage either in a folder on a music stand or in digital format. Some genres are able to accommodate this e.g jazz and classical concert singing, but as a rule singers are expected to know the lyrics off by heart. It means you can then concentrate on other performance skills and building a rapport with your audience.

As time goes by you will find you get faster at learning lyrics and you will need less tools to help you. The more you perform the songs the deeper the memory will go, till you won’t even be thinking about them.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou

Let me know if you have any other strategies that have worked for you.

In the mean time happy singing!

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