The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #106314   Message #2195485
Posted By: Don Firth
16-Nov-07 - 02:31 PM
Thread Name: Do you sing from Memory?
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
I've given a lot of thought to this recently.

When I first got interested in folk music, everyone I knew who sang did so from memory. Singing out of a book or reading the words off song-sheets was something that just didn't occur to anyone. I agree with those who say that if you don't know the song, you can't really do it justice. But "knowing" a song goes beyond merely having the words committed to memory.

One of my voice teachers had me bring my guitar to the lessons. He said that he could have me working on art songs and operatic arias and such for vocal technique, but since I was already doing some performing at the time, he thought (bless his heart!) that the best thing to do was work on the songs I was actually singing. He would often stop me in mid-song and ask, "What does that line mean?" Now, he knew what it meant. But he wanted to make sure that I knew what it meant.

He had a point. A very important one. He had spotted the fact that even though I had committed a song to memory, sometimes I was merely singing it by rote. I knew the words. But—I didn't really know what the song was about. So he would have me explain it to him using my own words, rather than just reciting the words of the song.

So there is more to knowing a song than just having the words memorized.

When I was singing actively, four or five sets a night, two or three nights a week plus other gigs, my repertoire of songs was getting a pretty good workout. Keeping them fresh in my memory was not that much of a problem. The main thing I needed to do was make sure that I was with the song, not singing it half asleep.

But within recent years, I'm not singing anywhere near that much, and there are some songs that I used to do regularly that I haven't sung for years. I think it's more this than the fact that I'm in my mid-seventies (my memory is pretty tenacious; as good as it ever was, if not, in certain ways, better) that sometimes in the middle of a song that I've sung hundreds of times, I'll open my mouth for the next line and it just isn't there. It's certainly not that I don't know the song.

I watch the "Classic Arts Showcase" channel fairly frequently and I've watched such things as "The Three Tenors" on PBS, and I have noticed that in the case the three tenors and sometimes in a film-clip of a song recital on CAS, there is a music stand nearby, usually within eye-shot of the singer (Carreras, Domingo, and Pavarotti all had music stands in front of them). These folks certainly know their material and they are not reading from what's on the music stands. But you will occasionally see them glance quickly at it. This kind of insurance—assurance—is certainly better than possibly blowing a song on national television!

So I may appear to be back-pedaling on what I said in the first paragraph, but in a live performance, especially for a paying audience, I think it's better to work with a "safety net" and have a music stand unobtrusively nearby than it is to suffer the embarrassment of a lapse of memory in mid-song—and inflict that kind of uncomfortable moment on the audience.

Provided you know the song. And that doesn't mean merely knowing the words.

Don Firth