Friday, October 06, 2006


When free time allows, I've been practicing songs old and not-so-old, trying to memorize (or re-memorize) lyrics for the weekly gig at Le Depanneur.

Memorizing songs has always been a big challenge for me. Unlike a written script -- play or poem -- where pauses and hesitations can cover up a memory gaffe and even at times enhance a performance , song lyrics have to be known stone-cold, delivered with passion in perfect time with the music, often in extremely distracting settings. The only method I've ever really known is play 'em over and over and over and over again, in my apartment, a park, wherever. Doing a professional recording will certainly serve the purpose: because recording is such a vivid experience, chances are a particular song will be engraved into memory almost unawares with all the takes and re-takes and listenings and edits. Still, I'm surprised a how often when I'm up on a stage, blinding light in my eyes, adjusting to some weird mike and strangers (and friends) walking in or across the front of the stage or even clapping along in time or god forbid out of time, lyrics I thought I knew bone-cold just fly out the window of my mind and I'm left having to fill in extra instrumental bars, straining to remember some god-damned lead-in, feeling like a total idiot. I've known all variations on the theme -- reversed stanzas, repeated stanzas, whole sections forgotten, old versions instead of new versions, stop and start again. Clearly lack of regular access to a live stage -- a common bane in a day and age where live venues have all but disappeared in most cities -- is what makes stage performances, when they come up, particularly stress-ridden things. All of which of course makes my little weekly gig extremely valuable to iron out those rough spots -- and boy do I ever appreciate that.

This week's set went quite well by the way. I got through all my pieces well enough (applause, appreciative comments, etc.) that only I most probably was aware of several gaffes and/or flubs I made (of course all but one were pieces the audience didn't know). But after practicing a new piece this morning an umteenth time and still finding memory faltering, I decided go on the net and see what was to be found about MEMORIZING LYRICS.

A site like this one is all too typical. A zillion suggestions, with the proviso "persist". To a person who prefers to create and read and think up new ideas in silence, who finds -- despite the fact that he's a songwriter -- going over a particular piece again and again an ultimately airheaded thing to do, suggestions like write out lyrics in longhand or record a song and listen repeatedly while washing dishes or driving the car mind-numbing to even contemplate. (Mind you, I have done these things. It's still mind-numbing to contemplate.)

This essay, though, by a veteran blue-grass singer of all things, struck me as truly insightful, a brilliantly polished gem from a treasure-trove of experience. Basically what she suggests is insightful contemplation of the words -- always interesting to someone involved in poetry -- to make a mental film-track of the piece, a kind of personal music video, as it were. This has several advantages. I quote the entire section because I think it's so well done:
Now the lyrics. Read through the lyrics carefully verse by verse. Learn the story. Feel the sentiment, the emotion or perspective the songwriter is trying to get across. Do this until those feelings, or your own version of them become alive in you. Then look at one verse at a time. Look at each phrase in that verse and notice how the words trigger mental images. If an image doesn't come to mind immediately make up your own. Make these images very large, clear and detailed. Link them together phrase by phrase within a verse. Then it's easy to link the verses together because the story has a natural sequence (usually). Another approach, and one that I use when possible, is to associate the lyrics to personal experience, or an experience in your personal repertoire that's enough in the ballpark to borrow from. The mental pictures then become personal scenes where the immediacy of the emotion is built in and powerful. In the end you will have something similar to a mini motion picture running across the screen of your minds' eye as you interpret a song, each scene triggering the related emotions.

There are some wonderful advantages to this. If you teach yourself to stay with the movie, that's where your thoughts will be. You'll be in the moment and out of your own way, so to speak. Where your thoughts will not be is on a track that causes self-consciousness and distraction, and this is particularly important when you're playing for or around other folks. Secondly, and I find myself smiling as I tell you this, if it happens that you forget the lyrics you will still have the back-up mental images---which tend to cause alternative words, or even phrases to offer themselves up to you like a mechanized ticket machine. They may not rhyme, but surprisingly they often do. A made-up word that rhymes has been known to create a feeling of great private victory.

A couple more thoughts for those who have trouble remembering words. Try typing them out in great big letters. This is a visual aid that helps commit words to memory. Lastly, tune into the feeling of the words on your lips as you pronounce them. This creates a helpful physical memory.

I'd like to close by passing on a remark that's worth repeating, even though it's second hand and I'm left to paraphrasing. I believe it was Robin Williams of the infinitely talented team of Robin and Linda Williams who said something like---'there's a time when you feel bad about forgetting words and tend to worry about it. Then comes a time when you relax, ignore or make a joke about it. Then finally there's the time when by the middle of the next verse you forget that you forgot the words.'
After reading this passage, I found it easier to live the lyrics of my songs, and to engrave them in memory with just a few intense run-throughs. Living in the "filmtrack" of the song as I played it enhanced performance, enunciation, everything. I love the bit about "being in the moment and out of your own way." It's certainly the way to be when doing just about anything.

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