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Do you sing from Memory?

16 Nov 07 - 10:10 AM (#2195277)
Subject: Do you sing from Memory?
From: RTim

I was wondering how Mudcatters, etc. sing, ie. - Do you at events (eg. Singarounds, Get togethers, song clubs or song circles and partivcularly things like The Getaway) or even at paid bookings, ALWAYS sing from memory, or do you have a set of notes, etc. nearby as a backstop or even a main reference that you sing from?

Because of years of not singing, then getting back at it more regularly AND because I have a rather larger number of songs I can sing - my song book is becoming a bit of a "Crutch" and I rely on it far too much - However, if I am doing a paid booking I will ALWAYS memorize the songs, but always have a large print version nearby of those not really in my head - just in case!

What are your thoughts on this subject?

Tim Radford

16 Nov 07 - 10:16 AM (#2195278)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: MMario

I *try* to sing from memory; but under some circumstances will "use the book" as a memory tweaker.

16 Nov 07 - 10:33 AM (#2195284)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Hawker

Prefer to sing from memory, but since my TIA last year My memory is even less reliable than it was before - and it wasn't too reliable then! I have back-up BIG print words nearby too, If I have them I rarely need them, if I don't I probably would!
Cheers, Lucy

16 Nov 07 - 10:37 AM (#2195288)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,maire aine

I try to make sure I have the words under control, but I often forget the guitar arrangement. If I haven't had a chance to practice a particular song, I'll keep a page nearby for the chords more than anything.


16 Nov 07 - 10:41 AM (#2195289)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Fred McCormick

I would suggest that if you haven't memorised the words, you probably haven't absorbed the song sufficiently to sing it in public. The only songs I've ever sung from the page have been topical squibs with a very short life span.

16 Nov 07 - 10:48 AM (#2195294)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: bigchuck

I always sing from memory. I feel strongly that I can't do a song justice until I have in memory, nor do I feel it can evolve until then.

Sandy Morse

16 Nov 07 - 10:58 AM (#2195300)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,Terry McDonald

On principle I always sing from memory - I was amazed when I came back to the club scene a couple of years ago to find almost everyone had their words in front of them. Wasn't allowed when I was a lad....

16 Nov 07 - 11:06 AM (#2195306)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,strad

I always sing and play from memory, as much a courtesy to the audience as anything. I don't understand how anyone can play for dancing from the notes. Watching the dancers feet is as much an aid to the band and you see some amazing and amusing sights on the dancefloor. A transparent backlit dress on a lovely dancer I would have missed if I was playing from the notes. And if you lose your place during a long song a phrase regarding a canoe and no paddle comes to mind.

16 Nov 07 - 11:14 AM (#2195313)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: DebC

What Sandy said. I always sing from memory. Now sometimes the memory don't work so well.... :-)

Deb Cowan

16 Nov 07 - 11:17 AM (#2195314)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: the button

I'd never sing a song in public that I couldn't sing from memory. Not karaoke, is it?

16 Nov 07 - 11:18 AM (#2195316)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Seamus Kennedy

Always memory....when I can remember to do so.


16 Nov 07 - 11:21 AM (#2195320)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Bee

Ninety percent of the time I sing from memory. However, I'm pretty new at this. I've only sung in front of a crowd three times, and kept my lyrics nearby in case of memory loss from stark fear.

I do find that if I don't constantly practice some songs, I will forget parts of them.

16 Nov 07 - 11:24 AM (#2195322)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Louie Roy

If you can't do a song from memory don't do itbecause you don't do the song justice and it sounds terrible

16 Nov 07 - 11:32 AM (#2195327)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,allan s.

when I was young I could always sing from memory And probably still sing those songs w/ a few written aids. Now at 78 I always need the words in front of me ... As my MD said "dont worry its just that your short term memory is short very short"    See what you all can look foreward to as you get older....

16 Nov 07 - 11:42 AM (#2195332)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: The Villan

I sing from memory, but unfortunately my memory can't remember anything.

16 Nov 07 - 11:44 AM (#2195333)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: M.Ted

I started out playing in bands and orchestras, where we always worked with the music in front of us--then moved on to folksinging and bands where everything was done from memory. As the years went by, I wished that I'd written out all the memorized stuff. Over the years, you do forget--

Fred McCormick--you are wrong, of course--memorization has nothing to do with understanding, and is not necessary to communicate the deeper truths in music--one could actually make a good case against memorizing music, because it tends to gloss over a lot of the details in a piece.

At any rate, you lose your memory with age, and it helps to keep a notebook for prompting--unless you are one of those (as evidenced in the cruel and miserable Davey Graham thread) who believe that the minute a performer starts to slip, they should be shot, or at least locked away and never seen or heard again.

16 Nov 07 - 12:03 PM (#2195344)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Amos

ALways. The only time I don't is when I am learning a song, something I don't do in public usually!


16 Nov 07 - 12:05 PM (#2195346)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Marje

It's all very well advocating the use of crib sheets, but I'm finding that the eyesight is deteriorating at about the same rate as the memory - bummer, innit?

But seriously, I do think that it's important that a singer takes the trouble to learn the song. There's really no excuse for singing it all from a book or word-sheet, it just comes over as lazy and half-hearted, and puts a barrier between you and the audience.

But having some kind of prompt nearby for a song that you really know and might just momentarily go blank on - that's another matter and can be done quite discreetly.

My method (I've probably said this here before) is this: for each song, I take a piece of card, about the size of a credit card, and write the title and the key on one side. On the other side I write a few words (often the first words of each verse) to remind me of them. I include any other problem areas, such as easily confused lines, and things like place-names that tend to slip my mind.

The process of making the cards is part of the learning process - it's helpful in pointing up the tricky parts of each song. You'll find if you try it that you probably actually know about 90 percent of the song, it's just a few key words and lines that you get stuck on.

I check out the cards before I go out to sing or even just before I sing, just to refresh my mind and remind me of the bits I might forget. If I feel uncertain I may even clutch the card in my hand while I sing, but I don't think I've ever had to use one at this stage. (I have, of course, sung impromptu at times without using the card, and occasionally got totally stuck. It happens.)

If you really can't be bothered to learn the song and work out some way of getting it right, you're unlikely to be able to engage your listeners. Well, this listener anyway.


16 Nov 07 - 12:19 PM (#2195355)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Alan Day

I too sing and play from memory.I also memorise fairly lenghy monologues.It is very difficult to put feeling into a song or a recitation if you are reading it.The same does not necessarliy apply to musicians using dots,but even then the music has been played so many times the players are almost perfoming from memory.

16 Nov 07 - 01:00 PM (#2195396)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: PoppaGator

In my younger days, I never worked from any kind of notes, never even taped a card to my guitar as I've seen many performers do.

Now, I was singing on the street back then, subject to wind, etc., and without a music stand or any such structure to hold a crib sheet. I was out there performing for hours at a time, and if I skipped a verse or sang lines out of order while working a new number into my repertoire, that was no problem, just part of the learning process. I'd just keep repeating until I got it down. It's not like I was under any kind of scrutiny, that's for sure.

At any rate, until quite recently, I would never have considered using any kind of cheat sheet. If nothing else, it would detract from maintaining eye contact with the audience.

When I restarted my long-dormant performing "career" just over a year ago, with monthly one-hour coffeehouse appearances, I was persuaded to start referring to notes. There's a music stand available on the little stage, and many of the players use it. I was advised to "just treat it like practice" as I slowly began to regain confidence, stage presence, etc. ~ and indeed, some of my fellow amateur performers at the Neutral Ground Coffee House are rank beginners, only slowly developing their skills and their repertoires, many using every imaginable type of "crutch" as long as they feel the need. (Others are true pros, established groups and soloists using their monthly slots more or less as rehearsals where they can pick up a few bucks passing the basket.)

At age 60, I sometimes need to peek at the words, and can't predict just when. Of course, the longest and wordiest songs on my list are the ones most likely to give me brain-freeze. Back in my younger days as a street singer, I made it a point to regularly sing a number of very long songs (notably Dylan compositions like "Tom Thumbs' Blues," etc.) just to pass the time. Even though I had so many songs firmly committed to memory for a good 3-5 year period, I cannot feel confident about keeping the lines and verses in order today, not without peeking at the lyrics once in a while.

I've begun to play another freebee venue regularly, a weekly open mike allowing just two songs per participant. There's no music stand there, and I generally pick my two songs from among those I really know well. Thankfully, there are enough numbers about which I feel sufficiently confident to sing without notes, and more of them as time goes on. I do hope to be able to abandon cheat-sheets completely sooner or later, but I recognize that advancing age may make that difficult if not impossible.

Incidentally, while I feel the need to periodically "peek" at lyrics, I never have any such problem with chords, or fingerpicking patterns, bass runs, etc., etc., or anything musical. I simply can't imagine taking a number onstage without knowing how to play it on my instrument, and I was really surprised to see someone's comment above that they needed a cheat-sheet chord chart.

Well, different strokes for different folks, I guess. Maybe the fact that I don't read music has something to do with my greater confidence in my playing than in my memory for lyrics. Also, long before I've learned the lyrics of a given song (by repeated singing), I will already have worked out an instrumental arrangement and played it over and over and over...

16 Nov 07 - 01:11 PM (#2195412)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: The Sandman

I always sing from memory,I find songs with stories easy to remember.
Many years ago, 1977,I did a gig at Highgate folkclub,I sang Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy,forgot a verse, so just made it up,Nobody noticed[including my fiddling accompanist],I wish I had a recording of what it was I sang.
just keep your cool and think of the story.Dick Miles

16 Nov 07 - 01:37 PM (#2195437)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Marje

If you did that now, Dick, you'd probably find that someone had indeed recorded it, transcribed it, and sent it in to Mudcat as an alternative version of the song! It'd be on YouTube in no time.


16 Nov 07 - 01:51 PM (#2195450)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Tradsinger

Like the other contributors to this thread, I would strongly advocate singing from memory as a) it gives a better impression that you really know the song and b) IMHO it leads to a better performance.

That said, none of us is getting any younger and it is more of an issue (so I have heard), but there are all sorts of 'tricks' for remembering words. Usually you only have to get going on a verse or a line to remember the complete verse or line. Try to picture the opening line, or even think of a nemonic (spelling?) to get you going. For example, if the verse starts "Three long steps I stepped up to her", then while you are singing the previous verse, picture '3LS' in your mind or even picture yourself striding out with long steps - that should get you going on the verse. And of course, keep singing the song over and over again to yourself so that the words become a sort of habit and you don't have to think about them.

Failing that, have a 'plant' in the audience with the words who can prompt you!

But above all, keep singing.


16 Nov 07 - 01:56 PM (#2195454)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: NormanD

Or, sadly, there'd be a lengthy and cruel Mudcat thread discussing your fall from grace.

I honestly fail to understand why it seems to be acceptable for classical performers - musicians as well as many singers - to play from written scores? Are they "not doing the audience justice" or performing without feeling?


16 Nov 07 - 02:00 PM (#2195458)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: The Villan

I don't give a toss with or without, as long as its good.

16 Nov 07 - 02:03 PM (#2195463)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST, Mikefule

OK, so I'm early in my singing career, and only have a dozen or so songs, but I never sing a song unless I can do it from memory. That's not to say I never make a mistake, but I do like to feel I "own" a song and can do it on autopilot. Then I can "turn it up" a bit for a public performance. I'm lucky - I have the time to practise.

I remember in my previous incarnation as a regular folk club goer (3 or more nights a week, 20+ years ago) that no one ever sang from the written words. I have returned to folk clubs over the last two or three years and I see quite a few people with song books, used as crib sheets during performance.

But I also note that most of them don't sing the words that are written down!

16 Nov 07 - 02:11 PM (#2195468)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: dwditty

I think if the audience takes the trouble to come out to see me, I owe them the courtesy of learning the songs they will hear as well my full attention. Having my head down, reading off a music sheet, does not, in my opion, do that. When I do see performers with a music stand, try as I might, I just don't believe them. As Captain Birdseye said, if you forget the words, make something up. Rarely will anyone notice.


16 Nov 07 - 02:15 PM (#2195469)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,Jim Carroll

"Do you sing from Memory?"
Is there any other way?
Jim Carroll

16 Nov 07 - 02:23 PM (#2195478)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Micca

As I have said before I am Much more embarrassed at forgetting the words than of having "the book" in front of me, and if you want embarrassement at its maximum, it is in forgetting a song YOU WROTE!!!,(this also applies to songs where you know more than one version i.e. Spanish Ladies and Girls of Tachuano) the trouble often is your brain switches back to an earlier revision (or version) before the "Final" draft and you go down a blind alley that you later rejected and get hopelessley lost!!! But, in the end, it is personal taste and it is the act of Singing that counts, and if more are encouraged to sing by using "the book" then that has my vote. Personally, I prefer to sing from memory but it is not always possible for a variety of reasons (lousy memory, singing too infrequently etc) or a "New song". but I would rather sing, book and all, than not.
"Let every man so bend his song
to help his neighbour sing along
let each and all contentment bring
when Old Men sing"

16 Nov 07 - 02:26 PM (#2195479)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: The Sandman

Jim,you said you dont do it any more.why dont youstart again?Dick Miles

16 Nov 07 - 02:26 PM (#2195481)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?

Maybe I am just awkward but I always sing from memory when singing solo EXCEPT for Christmas carols which I always sing from written sheets. There is a vague rationale behind this ...

16 Nov 07 - 02:29 PM (#2195482)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Santa

re classical performers: I think it is fair to say that most folk music is rather simpler. Usually shorter, too, though it may not always feel that way.

My wife sings from memory. She feels it wouldn't be right any other way - that it would be being impolite to the audience. (I am reminded of the treatment of mime artists in Pratchett's Ankh-Morporka. Hung upside down in a viper pit with the mesage "Learn the words".) She can be quite entertaining on how non-folkies in her choir sessions first react to being expected to sing without their dots.

16 Nov 07 - 02:29 PM (#2195483)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Deckman


16 Nov 07 - 02:30 PM (#2195484)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?

A Getaway moment:
A blind lady knew every single song from beginning to end. Never even a hesitation. And these were songs she had to dredge from her memory. I was suitably impressed and she suitably pleased at the compliments until someone who shall remain nameless pointed out the Braille song books she was lovingly caressing in her large satchel.

16 Nov 07 - 02:31 PM (#2195485)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Don Firth

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

16 Nov 07 - 02:47 PM (#2195496)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: PoppaGator

Amen, Don.

Even though I've begun to "refer" to cheatsheets ~ something I would never have even imagined years ago ~ I feel most confident when I know I can glance at something for reference. I certainly don't fix my eyes upon a lyric sheet and read every single word.

And you're right about the necessity for really understanding a song in order to "know" it and therefore to present it adequately. There are songs I've known for decades that I understand quite deeply, but whose lengthy texts provide me with plenty of opportunities to "draw a blank," or at least to hesititate long enough to lose the beat and ruin the musical setting for the words. Better to work with a safety net, as long as I feel the need.

16 Nov 07 - 03:17 PM (#2195514)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Herga Kitty

If you're singing at a folk club, from the front, as a performance, I think it should be from memory. This may be one of the aspects in which folk is different from other forms eg classical music? Patti Vetta performs in folk clubs but her background is as a recording session singer who sings from music on a music stand, so that's how she performs in folk clubs.

If you're singing from your seat (sitting or standing) in a singaround as part of a shared social experience, and you only feel confident to participate when reading from the words, that's OK.

Even when I write songs specially for special events I try to sing from memory (though will have a crib sheet just in case).


16 Nov 07 - 03:28 PM (#2195521)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,Jim Carroll

"Jim,you said you don't do it any more.why don't you start again?Dick Miles"
I assume you are referring to singing - what else!!!
Why don't I sing any more?
I enjoyed singing at one time, especially when my singing worked for me.
When I became interested in collecting and research I found myself with less time to devote to my singing so, as I was not prepared to sing in public without putting in the work, I was faced with a decision as to what was most important to me - collecting won - simple as that.
I get as much pleasure from research as I did from singing, so from my point of view it was the right decision.
Jim Carroll

16 Nov 07 - 03:54 PM (#2195530)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,Captain Swing

Folk performers tend to get away with far too much in terms of standards of performance. Using crib sheets or lyrics is a case in point. It really is an insult to your audience to fail to learn your material. I'm sure it's contributed to the demise of the clubs. A performer trying this in front of a 'live' audience wouldn't last long.

16 Nov 07 - 04:14 PM (#2195546)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: kendall

Memory. Always.

16 Nov 07 - 04:32 PM (#2195556)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: jacqui.c

Crib sheets when I need to - I'm with Micca on this - it's much more embarrassing to forget the words mid song than to glance down at the sheet just to remind yourself of the next line. I always try to sing to the audience, not the crib sheet though. Some songs I have committed to memory but, often, I don't know what I'm going to sing at a song circle in advance and may want to dredge up one that hasn't seen the light of day for some time as it fits in the mood of the evening, or to try a new one that, whilst I may have got it right at home, may not be totally committed to memory in public.

It irritates me when a performer forgets the next bit and wants to go back and do it again to try and remember, or agonises over not knowing the song at that moment. That really spoils my enjoyment of their song.

16 Nov 07 - 04:37 PM (#2195558)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: kendall

I just got a vision of Pavarotti stopping in the middle of his solo and saying, "Mama Mia, Ima forgetta the words"!

16 Nov 07 - 04:49 PM (#2195564)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Richard Bridge

One of the skills of the performer is the just ad-lib.

16 Nov 07 - 04:56 PM (#2195566)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Micca

Kendall, It wouldnt happen because he has them on the music stand in front of him as he sings,and the Notes too

16 Nov 07 - 05:24 PM (#2195583)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Liz the Squeak

I defy anyone to remember the entire 'Messiah' - including the bits usually cut out - without the music.

Most of my performances are done with the music in front of me, because it's simply far too much to try to remember. Even with the music in front of me, it's far too easy to go wrong. I've discovered that this is because a few members of the choir who stand behind me, have been singing 'Messiah' regularly for a number of years. This will be my third performance in a singing career spanning 34 years in various choirs, so I'm looking at the book for the correct words and notes. These few members have sung it so often they no longer feel the need to refer the score. Consequently, what they sing and what is written in the score are not always the same thing.

Having sung with the words in front of me for more than 3 decades, I find it hard to remember songs I've not sung more than about 90 times. As I get older, it's getting harder to remember tunes too, so the book in front of me is more of a crutch now. I have been known to have the book in front of me and sing an entire song without refering to it once.. I've even been known to turn it to a blank page for the few songs I DO know completely off by heart.

Similarly I've seen a performer stand up in front of an audience, tune up his guitar and not play a single note on it for the duration of the 4 songs he sang. He did grip it like a drowning man grabs a straw though.

Different crutches work for different people. It doesn't bother me, so don't let me bother you.


16 Nov 07 - 05:26 PM (#2195584)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Bill D

It is obvious from the above that most regular singers feel that it is best to KNOW the song....but there are times when it is a problem.

One example: In my club, we have a monthly "Open Sing" with a topic announced. It is often a spur to learing new songs and dredging up old ones....but often, the perfect song for the topic might not be 'locked' in the memory, even though you 'almost' know it. Then a cheat-sheet...just to remind one of the verse order, etc. can be a blessing.

My rule is: ***If I can close my eyes and not be able to tell that a person is reading some of it, I don't worry***....but if they barely know the tune, and have only printed off the song that afternoon, and are unsure of the pacing and have to stop and adjust their glasses and turn pages, it is no fun for anyone!

Certainly, folks giving a concert, and who are expected to KNOW the songs, should only in special cases use notes. I have seen some wonderful professionals read from notes because they had something new which needed to BE in the concert....but that is rare.

16 Nov 07 - 05:29 PM (#2195587)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?

I can't even remember words I've written myself. In fact, I find these much harder to remember than songs by other people, which I never have a problem with actually.

That said, even though I write out words before gigs I very rarely have the presence of mind to actually look at them in mid-song so generally make something up or sing the lines in the wrong order.

16 Nov 07 - 05:31 PM (#2195589)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: oggie

re Classical Performers - I've never known why soloists have the music there as they know it inside out anyway. For choirs it can be different but their level is training is such that they can sight read on the fly. When my son was at Eddington Festival I watched them rehearse the Lassus Mass from scratch in 45 minutes and give a brilliant performance. All the chrosters were senior boys and their training was to do this week in and week out seven or more times a week.

When I sing I never use cribsheets, at anyone time I have about 30 songs I could sing at the drop of a hat and many more at a few minutes notice. Over the years I suppose I've learnt 300 plus songs and every so often I delve into the past and try and remember ones I haven't sung for years. If I couldn't sing a song from memory I wouldn't sing it in public, the performance I could give wouldn't work for me or the audience.


16 Nov 07 - 05:31 PM (#2195590)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: My guru always said

Memory, definitely.

I'm with Marje on her 'card system'. I've made cards for each song that I feel I can sing with 'hints' on the reverse & authors name, key (only used if someone's kindly accompanying me on guitar, I wouldn't know a key if it came up & slapped me in the face with a wet herring) and book page number etc on the front. Then I just check through them before starting a set. I also find them very useful to figure out 'sets' in advance by laying them all out on a table & selecting or discarding till I find a good balance & variety of songs for an upcoming 'spot'. Or just shuffling and getting people to pick a card. Not advisable really - I recall a 'gig' when audience picked page numbers from my songbook and we ended up with 3 dreary ballads (probably about whales) on the trot *eek*

16 Nov 07 - 05:36 PM (#2195595)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: John Routledge

Bill D I wish your third paragraph could be repeated at the start of every thread on singing with/without words.

16 Nov 07 - 06:06 PM (#2195608)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Greg B

I'm with the 'from memory' set except, as someone mentioned above,
when the mortal flesh has intervened such as from a TIA or just plain
old age. In that case, the singer isn't cribbing it because s/he doesn't
know the song well enough, but rather because of a memory issue---
which means they understand how well one must understand a song to
sing it in public.

The other thing about singing from memory is that if you make
it a rule then you'll be singing the new song constantly. Driving, at
work, out loud and in your head/heart. Which means that you go about
with a song on your lips or in your heart much of the time, which is
a good thing, now isn't it?

Unless of course it's Barnacle Bill, and you're at work.

And forgetting the words isn't that awful, really. Hell, if Lou
Killen can do it on occasion, I sure can. Only thing I can't figure
out is how in the hell he gets the words projected up there on the
ceiling where he always seems to look for--- and find--- them. I
can't see him. Must be some sort of invisible ink laser projector
he carries with him, with about 10,000 songs in its memory.

16 Nov 07 - 06:12 PM (#2195610)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Don Firth

"re Classical Performers - I've never known why soloists have the music there as they know it inside out anyway."

Knowing the music "inside out" does not necessarily mean that even the best of them won't have a memory lapse from time to time. Even the recitalist, standing in the curve of a grand piano, has his or her accompanist a few feet away with the music in front of them to prompt them if necessary should they falter. In full-blown opera productions, Broadway musicals, and stage plays, there is a prompter's box under the stage and out of sight of the audience where someone with a score or a script hunkers down, ready to feed a line to a singer or actor when and if necessary.

So no matter how well you--or a very highly paid, world renown singer--know the material, neither you--nor they--are immune to the occasional brain-fart.

Don Firth

16 Nov 07 - 06:25 PM (#2195614)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Art Thieme

...And I'll know my song well
Before I start singing.

It's a hard rain's a gonna fall~

16 Nov 07 - 06:31 PM (#2195615)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: M.Ted

And I am sure that none of you have ever recorded a song with the lyrics in front of you, either. That would be dishonest, as well.

LTS raises an important point when she mentions the ones who think they've got it down, so sing from memory and get it wrong.    I will suggest that many of you who are so proud of your memory often confabulate the melody, as well as the lyrics. Many who sing folk music, and even perform it, are often lazy, sloppy, or just plain incompetent in their melodic efforts, and use some combination of excuses about the folk process and sponteneity--

16 Nov 07 - 07:06 PM (#2195631)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Tootler

I don't sing professionally, never have and, at 62 probably never will.

I have been singing at local folk club singarounds for about a year and I always try to learn the words of the songs I am going to sing. This has been hard work, but has been worth the effort and I have only had to use a crib sheet about 3 times over the year. I do keep my words to hand, though and I often go through bits I am not absolutely confident about just before my turn.

I see the effort of learning the words as something to help keep my memory active, something I am very keen to do. My mother had alzheimer's disease and having seen what it did to her, I am petrified of going the same way so anything I can do to keep my memory functioning effectively is worthwhile.

I was interested in this comment by Don Firth "But 'knowing' a song goes beyond merely having the words committed to memory." because I think the converse is also true. The process of committing the words to memory helps in understanding what the song is about. I find that while I am learning the words, the process of going over them brings insights into what the song is saying at that point.

Although I can read music, I cannot sight sing, so I generally learn song tunes by ear. If I can get the dots for a tune, I can play it on my concertina and sing along which helps considerably.

16 Nov 07 - 07:26 PM (#2195641)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Stewart

I don't go to song circle very often now, but when I do I am still amazed to see some people bringing several bags of song books and loose-leaf notebooks full of songs - hundreds if not thousands of songs. Then if they need the words (which they usually do) they awkwardly try and position the song sheet on their knee in front of their guitar, and then it usually falls on the floor.

Just having not to lug all that stuff around and then not having to position the song sheet and still play the guitar, by itself makes memorizing the song worth all the effort. It's a very freeing experience.

I find it harder to memorize the older I get, but still do it cause it's worth the effort. It just takes longer to do.

When peforming before an audience, eye contact and other visual communication with the audience is as important as knowing what the song is about, etc., and even glancing down at the words from time to time takes away from that important aspect of performance.

Cheers, S. in Seattle

16 Nov 07 - 07:53 PM (#2195657)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Tyke

When people turn up with the words of the song in a book and the book is as thick as my fist with hundreds of songs in it most if not all printed from the Mudcat. Then I think it can be a problem. As already stated on this thread are many good reasons why and why not crib sheets. But who is going to sing 50 songs plus in one evening.

Oh and if anyone tells you that I was seen down the then Tap and Spiel in Whitby with a laptop loaded with the digital tradition song files its true and I thought of it first! Yes I was taking the Mickey! Well there was hardly enough room for beer on the tables for songbooks.

I don't know if anyone has mentioned the Oral Tradition where a song is learned from a source singer. "Folk" is a living thing I don't want people in the future pointing at their crib sheets and insisting that they are singing the correct words. Because they got the words of the back of an LP by the Corries as recorded in 1957 or the Mudcat! Wasn't it Mr C Sharp who made a habit of taking all the swear word out of the Sea Shanties and other "Folk" songs

Here's the words you weren't looking for Dick!

It's adieu sweet lovely Nancy I've forgotten a verse or two.
So I'm going home for my Mudcat Book to look for something new.
Kind emails I will send to you from my home to your mobile phone,
I when I do return again I sing the song once more.

If only I had been their in 1977 with my Laptop!

16 Nov 07 - 08:03 PM (#2195662)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Deckman

I was going to make a profound comment ... but I forgot what I was going to say. Oh well! Bob

16 Nov 07 - 08:31 PM (#2195676)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Beer

Not any more.
Beer (adrien)

16 Nov 07 - 08:37 PM (#2195678)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Jim Lad

I used to keep my set lists by the amp and read over them during the breaks.
I threw them away about 5 years ago with the intention of replacing them with brand new sets.
I swear to God, I forgot.

16 Nov 07 - 08:41 PM (#2195682)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Bee-dubya-ell

I sing and play from memory as far as my own repetoire goes, but I have no problem using a cheat sheet if I'm accompanying someone else and they're doing something I don't know well. I just did a festival gig with a fiddler friend who has written some outstanding tunes, but I only play them a couple of times a year. I'd rather have the changes in front of me so I get 'em right. If we had a "real band" together and played the tunes more regularly, I'd memorize them.

16 Nov 07 - 08:48 PM (#2195685)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Leadfingers

I know of at least one Floor Singer in MY Patch who has all his songs on a PDA ! AND he uses it when he is 'on Stage'

Personally , I go with the 'If you dont KNOW the song , you dont know the song' school !

Even for One Off songs ate Theme nights , I prefer to have the songe memorised !

If recording , though , I WOULD have the words on a stand in front of me - Easier than Re Recording a song if you DO have a CRAFT moment .

(CRAFT MOMENT ?? Cant Remember A F****** Thing)

16 Nov 07 - 09:29 PM (#2195693)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Ythanside

Always, unless I'm re-recording 'word-perfect' tracks that vary too widely from established lyrics. :-)

16 Nov 07 - 10:32 PM (#2195713)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Don Firth

"The process of committing the words to memory helps in understanding what the song is about."

Absolutely! But please don't misunderstand what I'm saying when I say that I don't think having a crib-sheet within eye-shot is a hanging offense. I am not advocating reading the song rather than memorizing it. Most definitely not! Memorize the words and know the song (the two are closely connected, but they are not necessarily the same thing), and do not read from the crib-sheet when you sing before an audience. Stay in contact with the audience. But having that safety net there--to glance at only in case of a "senior moment"--can make for a much smoother performance and a more enjoyable experience for the audience. If a memory lapse should occur, a quick glance slaps a patch on it, and the song goes on smoothly and without interruption. If and only if.

I have not actually done it yet, but if I were to use crib-sheets in a live performance, I would not be lugging around a gunnysack full of books. It would be one three-ring binder containing only the songs I intend to sing in that performance.

And I'm only thinking about it.

Don Firth

17 Nov 07 - 01:09 AM (#2195753)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: M.Ted

I like the guy with the PDA--you can also use your PDA/Cell Phone to look up lyrics in the DT(and other places)--so those stacks of songbooks will soon be things of the past--as will those of you who insist on singing only what you've memorized;-)

17 Nov 07 - 03:55 AM (#2195768)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Jim Lad

Sorry: I thought we were talking about sets.
I wouldn't dare sing a song that I have not committed to memory.

17 Nov 07 - 04:02 AM (#2195771)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Mr Red

And memory is not what it was.
I have to sing in the car to refresh that memory.

My feeling is that by singing off the page expression and artistic impression is impoverished or even non-existent.

17 Nov 07 - 04:13 AM (#2195778)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,Jim Carroll

I agree totally with Captain Swing - reading from crib-sheets is an insult to the audience.
In all the years I have spent with traditional (source) singers, I have known very few who have use written texts while they were singing.
One was/is a local singer who now has Alzheimer's, but is still asked to sing occasionally and has been encouraged to write his songs in a book by his daughter.
On the couple of occasions I have seen it happen elsewhere, the singers have apologised for having done so and have obviously been extremely uncomfortable.
Walter Pardon did it once; he had put a tune to Thomas Hardy's poem, The Trampwoman's Tragedy but had stopped singing in public by then so had not bothered to learn it, so he read it from a sheet in order that we might record it. He would never in a thousand years get up in front of an audience to sing from the page.
I believe it is essential to know the song inside out before you can make a good (or even passable) job of it, otherwise you end up just singing the words, and singing should be much more than that.
In my experience, reading from the page has always made the song stilted and unconvincing.
Risking the wrath of god (or Khan) being brought down on my head, it is why I have never really liked The Coppers singing. The fact that they read the text from a book has always made their songs poorly phrased and samey; the great exception being Bob Copper's solo Topic album (Rosebud in June??) where he proved what a fine singer he really was, to my satisfaction at least.
Jim Carroll

17 Nov 07 - 04:13 AM (#2195779)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: DMcG

Surely the context in which you are singing is everything? I've never sung professionally but have in various formal occasions such as choral evenings. In singarounds, I normally have a mental list of things that I may sing that are relevant to the time or date: ones about Napolean in mid-June for example. But I rarely stick to that because I prefer to react to what other people sing to make a kind of 'conversation' of the session. As a result, at sessions I sing from memory, even the ones I had as possibles. But when I sing a psalm solo in church, I always have the music. Ditto in choral work.

When I play music, I always have fixed pieces with the notes in front of me because I'm simply not confident (or competent) enough to do anything else.

17 Nov 07 - 05:16 AM (#2195793)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: My guru always said

That's exactly how I feel about learning a new song Greg B, it IS a good thing for a singer to have a song on their lips!

And Stewart, that bit about not lugging songbooks being a freeing experience - so true!

Also Tootler regarding keeping the memory active, so very important, losing one's memory is a terrifying possibility!

Wonderful discussion!

17 Nov 07 - 05:17 AM (#2195794)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Liz the Squeak

*Humour warning*

I sang my first paid gig aged 9 with the music in front of me and I see no reason to change now!

Trouble is, if I were to sing a song now, on my own, in the bath or singing along with a recording, I could do it, perd worfectly. It's when you put an audience in the mix that the brain leaks out my ears.


17 Nov 07 - 05:53 AM (#2195802)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Linda Kelly

i have some songs that i would love to perform, mainly my own which I cannot because I do not possess the abiity to recall them-when you sing in a duo then that is a bigger problem. If proffessionls came to our club with crib sheets and some have dont think we would worry, especially if it is a new song, the performance counts. Memory is a problem because it needs time and space-I don't get that too often!Also if we have a break in performing I cannot retain words this is a bigger problem because you write your gig list and get to the stage and then think hell-what did I put that in the set for I cant remember any of it. Mainly for me it is the order of the verses so I occasionaly have first lines written on a scrap of paper to remind me

17 Nov 07 - 06:16 AM (#2195810)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Wilfried Schaum

When a troop leader with the Boy Scouts we always sang our songs by memory. No chance to hold a song book when hiking or aaround the camp fire.

Now I'm glad that we had learned about 300 songs by heart; the most I still can remember after half a century. Now that I have lost the most of my voice I often hum or whistle the songs and think the words (I call it inward singing).

Sometimes I forget some verses of certain songs, even shorter ones, e.g. John Kanaka. So I have to look it up often. That is exactly what I shall do now. Thanks DT).

17 Nov 07 - 06:27 AM (#2195811)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Jeanie

I think it depends very much on where you are doing the singing. In a concert-style set-up (i.e. specific performing area) where there is a paying audience, then I think all songs should be performed from memory (whether the performers are being paid to sing or not). In a set-up which attempts to create an "everyone sitting round in the back parlour" atmosphere, then it would be acceptable for people to sing from printed words. Personally, I am only really happy performing in public from memory.

Traditional songs were, by their very nature, always performed from memory and passed on in that way - and I think that is why it instinctively feels somehow odd to sing them, or hear them being sung, using the written word.

I think that if you forget a verse (or two), it is far better to carry on with the next verse you know than to double back on yourself to see if the missing verse(s) re-emerge into your brain. I remember an agonizing time listening to a man singing a song he had written himself, something about a boat going out of the harbour. He (and the boat) kept going round in circles, out of the harbour, and out of the harbour again and again... It felt as if we had crossed the Atlantic a hundred times over, rather than just the Channel, before getting to the destination !

It's a sad truth: audiences (whether watching a play or listening to a song) may appear to be hanging on your every word. Hopefully they are, most of the time, but when slip-ups are made, they are only really noticed by the audience if the performer draws attention to them. Best to just carry on regardless and only you will know what went missing.

- jeanie

17 Nov 07 - 06:31 AM (#2195813)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: synbyn

Is it better to read from a book or sing with eyes shut in desperate recall? Nowadays I practice new songs with my eyes open- it helps with trees and lampposts- they say that you remember songs as you first learned them, which is why so many lead guitarists struggle sober...

17 Nov 07 - 06:33 AM (#2195816)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Carol

I only sing in singarounds or folk club singers' evenings but much prefer to sing from memory - sounds corny but I think I can concentrate more on the song when I'm not looking at the words, but hopefully singing them on 'autopilot'.
However a few years ago I invested in a PDA gizmo which took the place of my folkofax and made my handbag much easier to carry. Even if I have been called the gadget woman!
These days I often look at it to remind me of a song, especially the 'run' of the verses if it's not telling a story.
I do cheat with words on paper when it's a song for a special occassion, e.g. birthday,Christmas that I'm unlikely to sing again.

17 Nov 07 - 07:11 AM (#2195828)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Carol

Oh and always have my eyes open - for some reason I find it disconcerting to look at someone singing with their eyes closed, so when I started singing I made myself keep my eyes open - at least you can 'see' if people are still listening to you, haven't fallen asleep etc.!

17 Nov 07 - 07:23 AM (#2195839)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,Terry McDonald

I always sing with my eyes shut - simply can't do it any other way. Probably the only time I open them is if I'm trying to do something clever with the guitar and need to ensure that my fingers are about to hit the correct fret and/or strings.

17 Nov 07 - 07:46 AM (#2195848)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Diva

Oh God i try........most certainly if its a solo performance ie paid but singarounds i tend to have ma wee book with me......its more of a security thing

17 Nov 07 - 08:00 AM (#2195854)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Leadfingers

I always thought that people who alwys sang with their eys closed had the words on the inside of their eye lids !

17 Nov 07 - 08:04 AM (#2195855)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,Jay

My, what a lot of interest in this thread. May I add my fourpence worth as I've been singing for years (and years) and now find I have much more difficulty remembering than I used to. Sadly, it's an age thing - and there's a lot of it about these days! Of course, I always make huge efforts to learn new stuff but I also always like to have the words handy to keep me going if absolutely necessary. A quick glimpse at the first line of each verse is usually all that is needed.

Now to be rather frank (and probably upset a few people) I truly believe there is nothing worse than someone refusing point blank to use a prompt when they are almost certainly going to be unable to get through a song without breaking down, sometimes over and over again. It's boring, inconsiderate and I consider it to be bad manners to an audience. One is there to entertain.

OK - disagree - I can take it on the chin!

17 Nov 07 - 08:08 AM (#2195859)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Mo the caller

Does singing from memory mean a smaller repertoire?
When I call dances at club I use a card, but practise with the music so that (after the walk through) I don't usually need the card. I have a wide selection which I'm always adding to. Calling for barn dances I don't use cards, but there are lots of dances that might go well, that I don't use, I just stick to the same tried and trusty few.

The suggestion that you should spend the previous verse of a song imagining mnemonics (3 long steps) for the next verse, seems more distracting than a crib sheet.

17 Nov 07 - 08:35 AM (#2195880)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,Terry McDonald

I don't think memory and size of repertoire are related. You're either blessed (or cursed) with a good memory or you're not and whilst it undoubtably declines as you grow older it doesn't seem to have happened to me..........yet. (I'm 68 by the way) I draw upon a 'working' repertoire of about 150 songs but felt quite humbled by Bonny Sartin of the Yetties mentioning, at their Sherborne club, that he knew 800 songs. Everything they performed that evening (and some were requests) he sang from memory.

17 Nov 07 - 08:54 AM (#2195893)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Liz the Squeak

If I'm singing along with the CD, then I can remember every sodding word... it's just nature's cruel trick that I can't remember words when people are standing next to me, the same way that I can't type quickly if someone is watching me.


17 Nov 07 - 08:55 AM (#2195895)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Liz the Squeak

And believe me, when you're as big an attention seeker as I am, that's not a good way to be!

LTS (who can laugh at herself with the best of 'em!)

17 Nov 07 - 09:44 AM (#2195923)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Lowden Jameswright

Bram Taylor gave a performance workshop at a festival recently and said the use of a music stand/song sheets was very unprofessional, as indeed was forgetting words to a song. During a tea-time informal performance later that day he then apologised for forgetting his words; a true "I don't believe it!" senior moment. So it's a case of "do as I say but not as I do" - sure it's preferable to operate without props, but as we all get older it's inevitable we will suffer these senior moments - I don't think the audiences will call for the curtain unless it starts to define the whole performance. Trick is, be prepared for the slip, and show you're human.

From a personal standpoint, I couldn't care less whether the artist uses a music stand/song sheets as long as I enjoy listening to what's on offer.

17 Nov 07 - 09:51 AM (#2195931)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Rumncoke

I wrote all my songs down from memory when I found that my memory was failing.

Some of them took several weeks to get right, though now I find that there are discrepancies between what I wrote and what I sing - I'm not actually singing from the book, even if I am reading it - somehow the words prompt the memory of other words - no idea how it works.

Perhaps I should rewrite them all in the modern versions - which I think are better as they iron out poor rhymes and do a bit of pruning.

If I do another book another change I will make is from A6 size to A5 and write, or even print out, larger - I still have good visual acuity but not as good as it was.

I sing in public very little these days - just at Sidmouth and Wareham, and I like to have the choice of all my songs - just so I can fit in one which seems to go with the others that have been sung, or sometimes I will be asked if I know a song, and then I can sing that. Perhaps if I cut my repertoire down to just a few songs, then I would have sufficient retention to sing them without the book, but I like having 300 songs, I like to see the expression on someone's face when I consult my index and find the words to something they have not heard sung for ages.

If someone gets exercised about my singing from my book I could always do Tam Lin - it might just make them realise that it is lack of recall, not failure to memorise. I am just grateful that I can always recall the tune if I have the words, and most times can play the guitar cords without having to think about it. If I can't get the cords first time I just put the capo on the fret I indicate in my book, and try out a few that might do - usually the shapes start to surface then. At least they have up till now.

17 Nov 07 - 09:55 AM (#2195933)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Sugwash

Firmly in the memory camp. It's easier if there is a strong story line in a song, happily a feature of many folk songs. Internal visualisation is the key for me.

I find it depressing to turn up at a sing-around and see more copy holders and ledgers than you'd once find in a typing pool. I see more and more music stands at folk clubs, often these are assembled when the floor singer gets up to sing, not before hand. As most of them are on a par with deckchairs in ease of assembly it also wastes time as well as looking amateurish.

17 Nov 07 - 09:58 AM (#2195934)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Teribus

Always from memory, never from a book or sheet. If you haven't got the song firmly fixed in your head, then it is not well enough known by you to be performed in public.

17 Nov 07 - 10:05 AM (#2195941)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Lowden Jameswright

I find it depressing to listen to someone who has a super-powered memory enabling them to be word perfect in 38+ verses, especially if it's associated with 38+ repeats of the same "tune".

17 Nov 07 - 10:40 AM (#2195959)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Flash Company

I have a magpie mind, and can remember the words of songs from all stages of my development, some of which I wish I could forget!
Many a song has come back out of the mists of time to haunt me for days, once it pops up in my head, it won't go away.
When I was singing I could usually exorcise it by public performance, now I tend to be stuck with it.


17 Nov 07 - 10:45 AM (#2195963)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: stallion

memory, but well prepared before gig with rehearsals, and, even then the wheels come off occasionally but having heard Cockersdale and Martin Carthy forget words in a concert I don't feel so bad about it, doesn't happen often enough, preparation is the key though.

17 Nov 07 - 10:48 AM (#2195965)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Richard Bridge

Memorisation is strongly desirable. It is what we should aspire to although I wouldn't be as judgmental as some posters here.
A safety net is also sometimes desirable.
If both fail, and ad-lib is an essential survival trait.

I'll usually have the words with me (big bag) but mostly I won't even take them out - unless someone asks for one I expect to be shaky on.

17 Nov 07 - 10:52 AM (#2195971)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,Auldtimer

If the "singer" can't be bothered to learn the song, why should an audience be bothered to listen? If you are just going to read out the words then get them coppied and just pass them round. This will save you the bother of learning the song AND reading out the words. If you send off the coppies to the venues you are/were going to this would also save you bothering to turn up as well.

17 Nov 07 - 11:00 AM (#2195976)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Sabine

When I was younger and started singing Folk songs, also in public, I sang from my memory, never a textbook or anything like that.
Then friends and me were asked to do a gig over several hours (a wedding of friends) and we had to put up a hugh song and gig list.
I think, it was then when I had to use my textbook / printed sheets with the words on it.
During the last years I did not have the chance to perform in front of audience very much, but became quite less self assured.
Also, funny enough, I know the melodies of several hundred songs and mostly one or two verses including the refrain and I have no idea why I cannot memorize the complete song which I find rather annoying.
So I use to have a sheet in front of me but only look down if I ran out of words.
Which also means that I have eye contact with the audience most of the time.

There are so many things which fill up my brains and memories at the moment that I cannot keep all these words in my memory. Have not find a way to change this so far and simply do not know how to get a better memory.
A memory just for song lyrics would be great...

17 Nov 07 - 11:12 AM (#2195986)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Essex Girl

I agree with Kitty on this one, if I'm singing to an audience - especially when using a p.a. I always sing from memory, but in singarounds at my local club I will use words if I'm learning a new song or singing one I haven't done for many years.

17 Nov 07 - 12:20 PM (#2196043)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Liz the Squeak

Here's a coincidence - my choir has been asked to sing some carols for which I'm busy this weekend finding the music and compiling a carol book because many of the choir don't sing carols often and can't remember the tunes without the dots - the irony is that the gig is for the Alzheimers' society!


17 Nov 07 - 12:38 PM (#2196054)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Alice

Always memorize lyrics when I plan to sing for people, either paid or unpaid.


17 Nov 07 - 03:08 PM (#2196138)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,Jim Carroll

Ballad scholar David Buchan suggested that at one time there were no set texts for ballads, just plots and commonplaces (milk white breasts, snow white steeds, wee penknives etc) and that a singer would extemporise every time he or she sang.
The nearest I have seen this in practice was with MacColl as he grew older and his memory started to go.
He would never dry up on a song, but quite often you could spot changes in his texts. You would always know he had put something in because he had forgotten the written text, by the little grin.
Jim Carroll

17 Nov 07 - 03:54 PM (#2196161)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: oggie

I find that the hardest part is realising I still know a song as I've not sung it for twenty odd years and so don't think about. A case in point is Pete Mundy's "Take Your Time". As soon as I saw the title (on a Mudcat thread) I thought "Take your time, me lovely ...." and yes I still know all the words but without that prompt I would never have thought of it.

All the best


17 Nov 07 - 03:58 PM (#2196166)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: RTim

Thank you to everyone who has been interested in this thread - I think it has been worthwhile.

I want to make it clearer now than my first note - That I ALWAYS prefer to sing from memory and hate it when I have to occasionally "Peek" at the book - however in all cases I know the tune solidly, and have sung the song many times before performing it in public - I just haven't always commited the words to my memory - Totally!

What sparked the thread to begin with was a gig my band (Beggars Description) did today - where I sang one song that I have only just started learning that was perfect for the occasion - and it also had my wife playing English Concertina for me - which is something we don't normally do. As my wife is an Early Musician, she is used to dots, etc. in front of her and she can never really understand why I always try and sing from memory! And as we can see by the responses - it is horses for courses - some like it some don't.

But again thanks for your words - I learnt something and I hope others did too.

Tim Radford

17 Nov 07 - 04:58 PM (#2196214)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,Bruce Michael Baillie

..I'm with Sugwash ans the others in the memory camp, if you can't remember it don't fuckingwell bother!There's little enough room in the average folk club without nusic stands and reams of bloody paper!

17 Nov 07 - 05:02 PM (#2196219)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Liz the Squeak

Can't help but feel that the attitude of the previous poster would mean far fewer people wanting to participate in an already dwindling genre.


17 Nov 07 - 05:14 PM (#2196223)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,Captain Swing

As I said earlier, one of the reasons the genre is dwindling is because people associate folk clubs (and music) with poor performance and presentation. This wasn't the case in the 70s when clubs were packed and there wasn't a music stand in sight.

17 Nov 07 - 05:33 PM (#2196239)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: RTim

Yes - Folk Clubs in the 70's didn't just have people there to listen - They also performed, and I know from my experiences that some singers were pretty bad when they started and it was great to see them improve over time. You have to have space for singers and musicians to try out infront of an audience!
Today there are TOO MANY concert clubs and not enough performance opportunies!

Tim Radford

17 Nov 07 - 05:34 PM (#2196241)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Santa

LTS: or fewer people put off by amateurish performances?

I don't recall any professional singer reading from notes, even for a brand-new song. It is a privilege to experience a new song for the first (or at least very early) time, and using notes might reasonably be forgiven, but I don't recall it happening in my experience.

This might well be the kind of thing that varies from club to club. My regular club is predominantly a "concert" club: even on singers nights people do sing and play without texts. (Generally, there are always exceptions.) If your club is only a bunch of friends that sit around and sing to each other, then all sorts of allowances can be made. The same for a gathering in a pub at a festival. But if you have paying customers, then it is rude not to have learnt the words. Forgetting the words in mid-song is a much less heinous offence: that can and does happen to the best.

Folk etiquette, either you get it or you don't. A bit like people who get up for a beer, or wander in with a new one, in the middle of a song. You just don't do that! But people do.

17 Nov 07 - 05:58 PM (#2196268)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Stringsinger

there are some who are gifted with memory for words. I am not one of them.
I can remember tunes forever.
in the movies,
there are many well-known actors who use a crib sheet and can turn out a convincing

I don't agree that memorizing words automatically makes for a good performance.
I don't agree that reading from printed material does either.

If you do one style of music, it's easier to memorise without words in front of you,
however if you do a lot of different types of songs, then this is not easier.

I think you can do both depending on the situation. Even recording artists often
have words in front of them and can be convincing in their performance.

You can't generalize because it changes from performer to performer.


17 Nov 07 - 06:13 PM (#2196283)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Liz the Squeak

So we've got a circular argument going on here.

Some feel it is unprofessional to use a crib sheet, even though there are examples of professionals doing so (there's film evidence of Elvis using a crib sheet in the middle of a concert - and that was before he addled his brains with drugs and burgers); others feel it is acceptable for crib sheets in informal situations. Still others consider carrying a library with them perfectly acceptable regardless of the circumstances (that would be Les Barker then. Never heard him do a single poem from memory yet). So when does an informal singaround become a formal concert? When payment has been given?

Frank has hit it on the head with his final statement. We don't need to start getting personal or insulting.

If people find my using a cribsheet so offensive, they should stop asking me to sing.


17 Nov 07 - 06:19 PM (#2196286)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Greg B

Thing about using a crib sheet because you're getting older and
starting to forget more---- as you get older you find that you
can't read the bloody lyric sheet, either.

Wot's to do?

17 Nov 07 - 06:20 PM (#2196288)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Don Firth

". . . if you can't remember it don't fuckingwell bother!"

Well, GUEST BMB, one assumes that they have the song solidly memorized--in fact, may have sung the song hundreds of times with no glitches. And then, suddenly, there you are, in front of an audience that paid a fairly good wad to hear you sing, and you blank out on the words! That's rather on a par with having your belt suddenly break and your pants hitting the floor. You didn't plan on it, it's never happened before, but there it is!

No one--no one--can be guaranteed that this isn't going to happen to them. And if it does happen a time or two, you begin to reassess your thinking about having a notebook of crib-sheets set unobtrusively by, where you can give it a quick glance if you suddenly begin to feel your pants sliding toward the floor.

Don Firth

17 Nov 07 - 06:36 PM (#2196302)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Liz the Squeak

you suddenly begin to feel your pants sliding toward the floor.

So THAT'S why they keep asking me to sing!


17 Nov 07 - 07:40 PM (#2196339)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Don Firth

Hmm . . . this is beginning to take on a whole new dimension. . . .

Don Firth

17 Nov 07 - 07:58 PM (#2196352)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,Captain Swing

Other than in a rehearsal or a recording, I can't see any justification for having crib sheets. If you don't know it, don't sing it. Performing a song is a method of communication. It's on a par with acting. Who would expect actors to read from scripts?

Mistakes are acceptable in either context. A great part of stage craft is in dealing with the mistakes and esuring that the communication continues.

Whenever I perform a new song I expect to forget some of it so I work out a stratgey to deal with it when I do. That takes the pressure away and makes it less likely that I will forget some of it.

Communication is everything. You can't communicate what you don't know.

18 Nov 07 - 12:09 AM (#2196479)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Ferrara

Obviously there are strong opinions here but it's a question that each person needs to decide for themself.

I agree with what Bill D said (16 Nov 07 - 05:26 PM). [Well I ought to, we have discussed it often enough.]

If it helps to have a crib sheet there as a backup when performing; if you are singing in a song circle and really want to do a particular song; if you need it for some other reason; and if you can sing the song and make it sound as if you were singing from memory -- I think there are plenty of times when a crib sheet is OK. Obviously no one here is advocating singing every song from a crib sheet, or reading the words during a performance.

But, you know, I believe Big Mick did that just once, in the Getaway evening concert. He was reading a song he had just learned from El Greko; there hadn't been time to memorize it but Mick wanted to share the song. The song, and Mick's singing, were wonderful and memorable. Absolutely appropriate.

We have a friend who physically cannot remember complicated words without a tremendous amount of effort put into learning them. But she is a good singer. I am happy to hear her sing a song with words in front of her. I wish she would bring her song sheets and sing more often.

I have a good memory for lyrics and know hundreds of songs (not necessarily folk songs) and can dredge up many of them with a quick mental run-through. All the same I take a cheat sheet to our local Open Sings if I want to sing something I'm not 100% sure of. Most of the time I just use it to clue me into the next line or verse if needed.

BTW -- Knowing a song really well doesn't keep you from forgetting the words! I sang "Dumbarton's Drums" in front of quite a large audience a couple of years ago. I sing it frequently, have sung it for years, and never dreamed I might need to mentally "run through the words" first. I got to the first chorus, sang "What fond delight, doth ... ... ... ..." Luckily someone called out, "steal." I waved a thank-you, sang "steal upon me," and went on from there.

The rest of the song went beautifully, and the singing on the choruses was all one could ask for.

Rita F

18 Nov 07 - 01:13 AM (#2196497)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Barry Finn

A bit long, but

I attend all different kinds of singsongs, singarounds, singing sessions, etc, as much as time allows. Some of the worst I've ever been to are where folks are all singing from "Rise Up Singing" but if that's what gets them off far be it from me to want to change it, if it works from them great. The best singing sessions that I've ever been to there's not a piece of paper, book or crib sheet in site. It's off the cuff 1 song inspiring the next nothing planned just from one singer to the next, each doing their best to keep the juices flowing. This usually has happened at late night sessions during festivals or at singer's camps or getaways, some singing sessions or clubs, it's not all that often but it's almost always spontaneous, with a few exceptions, like at Mystic on their Fri & Sat night sings. How do you do spontaneous from a book or a notepad, how do you follow a few songs about mining than go to page 56???
It's fine if all you want is a few songs between friends who don't normally get together & don't need to digest what they want to sing but if you want to really get the crowning joy of singing in a community setting with those that feel the same way either do as they do or just listen or sing along with them until you can do it on your own, it takes time but it took all of them time and nothing's feels as good when the time & effort is put into it to get there.

As far as memory goes, if you forget a spot here or there who gives a shit as long as you were doing it well, most of us can use our imagination to get past "you forgot a verse". I rather hear half a song done well than a complete song done like shit by someone reading it at me.

I've got a memory worst than most to start with & then I take meds that furthers it's uselessness but I can still sing from a very very
large repertoire. You want to sing a song from recall not memory. You want to sing from recall learn the song 1st, commit it to memory, sing it in the shower, in the car, at work, as you go to sleep, then sing it front of friends or at a session but start to sing them in public without the aids, that's when you'll put the songs into a place that you can later recall them from. You need eat the song, digest it, spit it out & swallow it again & again untill the song's no longer the song you originally heard it's now your song. If you only have the time or efort for a few songs that's better than none or a bunch from a book but doing it this way you can have a lot in a small amount of time if you're willing.
You've fit that song to your style, your way of singing, you've put into it your own little special quirks, personality, subtle traits, phrasing, that's not in your memory now, that's some place else now,
your gut, your heart, your recall whatever you want to call it, it's in a place where it'll be accessable enough to place it back in the forefront enough so that you'll find it with much less effort than if it were just in your memory. It doesn't have to be tha same way as you 1st heard it but it can be if you want. You take the song as far as you're willing to go with it, it's not like you can beat a song to death, you can only kill it by not trying to do it justice though. You don't need a great voice either. Dave Van Ronk, IMHO didn't have a great voice neither did Dylan or Cash, or a whole list of others but they had a special way of putting a song over & across that made them & the song appealing & theyall knew their song well before singing it too. You take any of the Cathy's or Watersons, Blairs & Stewarts, Carters yes they've all great voices but they've also put loads of time & effort into their voices & their songs. So in the end it's up to you to use what you've got & how much you want to put into the songs you want to sing. If the singing from a book crowd does it for you, that's great if not go further take it far as you want or can, otherwise listen to those that have taken it to a place beyond where you're willing to go.

There are some that bring notebooks to sessions that I frequent that are learning a new song & I don't mind, neither do other I'd guess.
As far as I'm concerned they're learning a new song & are practiced singers just trying it out amongst friends & using us as their sounding board, again that's ok among friends, I wouldn't be agreeable to them doing that anywhere else or in a different setting.

I've been to a few late night after hour festival sessions where the singers were great, the songs kept coming each one better than the last till you thought that you were in heaven & it just couldn't get any better but it does then some joker pulls out a book & starts reading off a song & the death bell starts tolling next some one says page 22 in Rise Up Singing, before you know it all the singers just left the bar for a unannounced dark corner of the festival grounds to start another round of songs but this time it's private
& it sucks because they would have rather had been singing for more than just themselves but they'll settle for singing within their own crowd rather than be sung at by those that chose not to put the song in front of themselves, after all it's the song that's of importance, the singer is only important because of what they can do for the song & for the folks that are listening to it or joinging in.


18 Nov 07 - 07:03 AM (#2196593)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: stallion

Whoa Barry, nice piece, immersing oneself in the song is the key. Oh and the "Rise up Singing" bit I found interesting. As you know we have been recently in your company and when I was setting the trip up I tried to get something going with a local (Boston Mass) organisation after twelve months drew a complete blank, but in the spiel for one of their events was "bring your own copy Rise up Singing because there was only a limited amount of spare copies" Seems like we were saved by their inactivity! Oh and if you haven't heard Barry sing I thoroughly recommend the cd "Fathom This" Finn & Haddie or better still go see him live very distinctive style and a real performer of songs not just a singer.


18 Nov 07 - 07:25 AM (#2196607)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,Waco Jacko

Memory is best. If I'm watching another performer singing from words on a music stand or crib sheet I always get the impression that I'm sitting watching them practice and I'd rather watch and listen to a performance of a song. If you get some words wrong, it's not crucial, much more important is your interpretaion of the number. We all hit wrong chords and get verses mixed up from time to time but what I want to see is a performance of a song not a paint by numbers tune. The other thing is once you start to rely on crib sheets it's very hard to move away from them. Those comfort zones are very hard to escape from. You can only practice live performance by doing it live, so start as you mean to go on. I've seen performers struggle at outdoor gigs when the wind has blown over their lyrics or poor lighting has left them unable to read or they can't start a number until they find the right page in their folder, which is on the floor underneath some guitar leads! It's really best to learn the song,get the feel of it and let it flow out. It also builds your confidence.It's your decision to go out and play live so I think you owe it to your audience, it also means you can look at them and not stare at a sheet of paper.

18 Nov 07 - 07:27 AM (#2196611)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Richard Bridge

We don't seem to get this "Rise up Singing" in the UK. What is it exactly? I know it must be a song-book. It sounds like a hymn book - and I do mean with the emphasis on religious or religious-tinged music (which can usually get me out of a song session faster than a rat up a drainpipe)

18 Nov 07 - 07:30 AM (#2196613)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Lowden Jameswright

It's an Ad jingle for Viagra

18 Nov 07 - 08:13 AM (#2196644)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Dave Roberts

Just a thought - many of the greatest performances by our leading actors have been read from the page.
The definitive example would be Dylan Thomas' 'Under Milk Wood', starring Richard Burton.
I'm referring , of course, to the art of the radio drama (and comedy, come to that) which is read from a script and can lead to undeniably rich and rewarding, sometimes award-winning, performances.
In the case of some classic radio comedy - eg The Goon Show - this was achieved without a great deal of rehearsal or production.
It's nice to see singers doing it all from memory, but I don't personally think the end of civilisation is upon us if a crib sheet is used from time to time.

18 Nov 07 - 12:19 PM (#2196790)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Mysha


Well, I myself, I sing from memory. That's a matter of (in)ability. I've sung both classical and close-harmony, at some times even at the same event, but for classical I can't read notes fast enough and for popular I can't read text fast enough. Folk I only sing at sessions, and out of habit I sing it from memory. If I'd try to do otherwise, I expect I'd be unable to find any given point in the text fast enough for texts to be of any use.

From an audience point of view, I'd say this is about the combination of ability and audience. I've been in the audience of a club in Paris once, one song each, where one of the performers broke a snare while tuning. We had ample time to see how nervous he was while he replaced it, and his performance, once he started playing, wasn't very good either. But I guess we all felt he was courageous for trying anyway. To make matters worse, another snare broke while he was playing, and he had to sort of improvise his chords around that. If there's an absolute scale of performance, his piece can't have been very high up, but we as an audience we considered him playing as well as he was able to at that time, and he got one of the loudest ovations of the evening.

I can't recall whether he had music in front of him - probably not, or he would have knocked it over - but the point is that the audience wants you to perform to what it considers the best of your ability. Folk is an oral tradition, but that's not by choice; it's simply that folk music didn't have the money for writing, where court music did. If you give an audience the best performance when singing from paper then you'll have pleased the audience to the best of your ability. It's only if you do considerably less than that, that you will insult the audience.

Note that I didn't write "sing", but "give performance". Some folk audiences will cling to "tradition" so much that having music in front of you will weigh heavily against your performance, and to them you might in fact be superior when you have no paper and skip a verse you can't recall, or show you're human and gesture to the audience for help. Nor did I write "sing the words". Those in the audience that notice will usually understand an occasional honest slip, but will appreciate that you keep performing, whatever your way of coping. Even restarting a song, though it absolutely degrades your performance, can be forgiven if you redeem yourself in that second try.

Yes, some people sing poorly from paper, but they might sing even worse from memory. Yes, some people set up standards a little late, and a few whispers might go a long way towards speedier future sessions. No, sing-a-longing and folk-song performing don't get along too well, regardless of whether paper is involved. Etc.

But it's a matter of ability and audience. So if you're the artist, think about whether the best you're able to perform for this audience is with paper or without it. And if you're in the audience, consider in what way everyone would appreciates the performance of this artist best.


18 Nov 07 - 01:22 PM (#2196856)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Barry Finn

RUS (Rise Up SInging) is a song book that's really swept the US song circle crowd by storm. There are many folk society sings that use these books in mass (hence refered to as the Bible). I've been to sings (which I'll never return to) where someone will take their turn, request that everyone turn to page $#@% and sing. Some places this is the soul (pun intended) source. A few societies that I used to frequent which back in the 70's-80's were fantastic, took up these hymnals & treated them as the only worthy source to sing from & to top it off none has to learn any songs so they forever read to each other.

My musical protest to that (RUS)

Rise Up Screaming by Barry Finn
Tune: Jack In The Green by Martin Graebe

A pub session or a party is a very strange thing
They're all out of fashion no more do they sing
For they read from a book or copy a tape
They imitate sounds no mortal should make

There's no sound in the kitchen, no sound in the hall
There's a murderous screech that plays off the walls
Where is the music, where are the songs
In the mouths of monsters where no sound belongs

Dead pan they look as they sing in your face
They'll spit out the words and the tunes they'll disgrace
A song will be beat o'r and over to death
And in a round robin they'll resurrect it again

No more will be heard a version that's lost
Or a variant that's rare or two songs were crossed
The borrowing or sharing of a tune or a song
Will be according to the Bible all else will be wrong

And now for the future, it's bleak for the song
No young mortal will dare to carry it on
They'll be none around who without books can sing
Or swap without tapes or rise up singing

Copyright Barry Finn 1996


18 Nov 07 - 01:48 PM (#2196877)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Ferrara

Barry, your long post [18 Nov 07 - 01:13 AM ] is fantastic. Somehow you put into words all the magic of a great singing session. Wow. Very, very well written IMO.

I agree that someone trotting out a song sheet in the atmosphere you describe would be the kiss of death. There is nothing like a spontaneous sharing of songs that flows naturally and lets everyone flow with it.

Groups who actually prefer to sing out of RUS are self selecting. Someone wanted to start an official FSGW group like that in the DC area, where song sheets were passed out, etc. I said, "Fine, if you will organize and lead it. No one else I know who has the experience to make it happen would be able to stand sitting through at a sing-around like that every month." Of course it never happened. But. There are groups like that in this area, some are quite nice as I understand it. The people who wanted to spend time like that organized it for themselves.

Also, singers with a big enough repertoire to enjoy the give-and-take kind of session Barry described, tend to have enough knowledge of folk music to get really, really irritated when some jerk with a copy of RUS tells them they "aren't singing the right words." So for the most part the twain don't meet.

Our local FSGW Open Sings are Open. So we encourage people to come and try their wings even if they have to have the words. A couple of people have really grown as singers by taking this approach. But the Open Sing is a "sheltered" environment. It can be very good overall but it's not likely to be magic. First and foremost, it's a sing-around. That kills the kind of give-and-take Barry was describing; each person sings whatever they came to sing. In a specific order. Different purpose, and very different experience from a good spontaneous singing session.

I know which I prefer BTW....
Rita F

18 Nov 07 - 02:08 PM (#2196888)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Marje

In (rather late) response to Liz above: I was once in a choir where one elderly woman knew Messiah by heart and used to it without the score. A new conductor came and ordered her to use the score, his argument being that each performance had different nuances (dymanics, tempo, where to breathe, how to enunciate particular words, etc) and if she didn't have this pencilled on her score she'd miss a lot of the interpretation.

So there's a very different tradition in classical music, for all sorts of sound reasons. I'm now in a folksy sort of community choir where everything is leared by ear and we are not allowed word-sheets for performances, only little crib-cards if necessary. I've really enjoyed learning by ear and performing without a score in my hand.

In pop music it's inconceivable that a singer would get up with a word-sheet or music stand - learning your material is just part of your craft. If all those X-factor contestants can do it, I'm sure we can do it to.


18 Nov 07 - 04:16 PM (#2196969)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: lamarca

If a song really grabs me, it starts to "sing me" - spinning around in my head, making me sing the same two lines I can remember over and over until I'm forced to learn the whole thing by heart in self-defense!

I've found that as I get older, the songs that stay in my memory are the ones I learned because they really spoke to me. Songs that I learned to fit the topic for the monthly song-swap or because they were "clever" fade quickly - probably because I don't love them in the same way, and thus don't keep singing them. If I'm sitting around with friends, swapping songs, I'll sometimes try to dip back in the mental archive to retrieve one of these songs if it fits the mood, but frequently will go up on the words, laugh and let someone else sing instead. Or, if I'm in the grips of New Song Fever, but haven't quite got it down yet, I'll tell my friends that this is "a work in progress" and use a cheat sheet.

But when I and my husband are performing, we sing from memory, and have practiced what we're going to sing. Even Yo-yo Ma or Placido Domingo wouldn't dream of going on stage to perform a piece they hadn't rigorously practiced. While many folk performers have a large repertoire, and don't always have a firm set list for a given performance, they'll frequently stick to songs they've run through within recent memory. I've often requested that a performer do a song from his or her "back catalog" in the second set, and been told "I'm sorry, but it's been so long since I've sung that, I don't think I can do it justice..."

That said, I've watched the late, great Helen Schneyer put the booklet from one of her Folk Legacy recordings on the piano, and sing a song she recorded 20 years ago with the same passion and vibrancy. The difference is that she HAD learned those songs by heart, and they had left an imprint in her soul that she remembered and could make the audience feel again, even though she needed help with word retrieval in her later years. I've seen other folk performers do the same thing, and I've also seen some that should have, but didn't bother, and instead showed the audience the disrespect of launching into repertoire they hadn't practiced and couldn't remember, not just for one song, but repeatedly.

My feeling is that if you want to be a performer - that is, get up on a stage and have people pay to hear you (Whether you're getting directly paid or you're performing for free at a festival the audience paid to attend), you owe them three things:

1. A love of your material so great it leads you to learn it and make it your own.

2. A desire to communicate the essence or story of the song to others, so that you learn as much about the song as you can - where did it come from? what is it about (people, place and time period)? why do you love it?

3. Enough respect for your audience to have practiced your material so that you can give them as good a performance as you can.

If you can't do these three things, you're not ready to be an interpreter or communicator of songs to a dedicated listening audience. It's better to sing socially, share songs with friends or at group sing-arounds and enjoy the music. Not everyone has to be a "performer" - making music with friends is what folk music is about!

18 Nov 07 - 04:23 PM (#2196976)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Don Firth

Lamarca, I'd say you've zinged in on the essence of the matter. Well said.

Don Firth

18 Nov 07 - 04:59 PM (#2197011)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Richard Bridge

Of course there is the argument that folk music is the oral tradition, so if you always sing from a text you are denying the essence of folk music.

Did you know I was going to say that sooner or later?

18 Nov 07 - 05:15 PM (#2197025)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Liz the Squeak

Ah, but do you mean oral or aural? Both are equally valid. It only ceases to be oral/aural when I just give you the piece of paper with my song on it.


18 Nov 07 - 05:45 PM (#2197040)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Alan Day

If it is the choice of hearing someone sing ,but with a crib sheet or not,I would choose the singing.
Hope the concert goes well LiZ.
Audience participation Liz with The Twelve Days of Xmas is well recommended.

18 Nov 07 - 06:59 PM (#2197080)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Ron Davies

Mary and some others have basically covered this topic.

In general the worst possible situation is a "Rise Up Singing" singaround--where there is absolutely no reasonable expectation that the singer will even have seen the song two from the bottom on page 34--but will insist on guessing on the tune and plowing through all 11 verses on the page.

We call the book "Sink Down Moaning".

Anything is better than that.

I certainly understand how people may forget words. But the solution (by Dick?) earlier--is the best--just make them up. Or skip to a verse you remember.

Most people would, I'd think, have a good idea of what they planned to sing--and could make sure they had it memorized in advance. If singing a ballad, it's more important to keep the story moving than to remember every word. And chorus songs--my preference by far--gives you a chance to remember the next verse.

Above all you want to bond with your audience--and it seems to me the best way to do that is to have them sing--a chorus or refrain-- with you. And the bonding will never happen if you are reading off a sheet--with no eye contact with your listeners--or worse, out of a book. Though I'll have to admit, if the song is good enough, even reading out of a book (except RUS) is not a disaster necessarily. There are very few songs or performers it is worth listening to who sing "folk" from a book or off a music stand--but they do exist.

And I would think it no problem for the performer in an informal, non-paid, gig, to hold the lyrics in the hand if necessary--just as a talisman. It would be good however not to look at them while singing.

Classical music, I agree, from singing in choruses for over 20 years, is vastly different--especially since the precision required is extreme--both in words and notes, and in such aspects as duration of note, cutoffs of words, dynamic variation, etc. Totally different kettle of fish.

I belonged to a madrigal group for about 15 years. That's probably between the two worlds. I pushed hard for the group to memorize pieces--and it was wonderful when we did.

18 Nov 07 - 11:54 PM (#2197209)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: M.Ted

If this is supposed to be all about "the people, singing the people's music, in the people's voices" why are some of you setting ridiculous and arbitrary rules about what is acceptable?

Better singers than any here use crib sheets. Better musicians than any here read from music. Better entertainers than any here break all your "rules".   The thing is that song circles and singing sessions are not about being "better", they are about sharing and having fun. Let's stop excluding people and abusing them because they need a little bit of prompting.

19 Nov 07 - 02:57 AM (#2197240)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,Jim Carroll

"they are about sharing and having fun."
They are that, but they are much, much more; they are certainly far more than reiterating the words.
The best of our older singers were able to re-live the songs each time they sang them, often long after their technical ability had deteriorated. Sam Larner always gives me the impression that he was singing his songs for the first time; don't see how you can do that from a crib-sheet.
Personally, I always find anybody reading their text unconvincing; as if they are reciting something somebody else has written for them.
Jim Carroll

19 Nov 07 - 04:04 AM (#2197265)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: eddie1

Try listening to a few concerts/floorspots/singarounds with your eyes closed then decide who was singing from a cribsheet or not. Check with a friend.


19 Nov 07 - 05:09 AM (#2197290)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,Flatpick

If you have to read the words then it's childishly simple:
You don't know the song, go home and practice and learn the damn thing.
Do not go out and inflict your inabilities on others.
You just aren't ready with this song yet, no shame there, just try harder.
I'm 65, been singing and playing 47 years in folk clubs, bars etc.I know about 900 songs at the last count and have never ever used a songsheet, worked with anyone who used one and won't allow them at my monthly gathering.
My opinion...

19 Nov 07 - 07:56 AM (#2197371)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: M.Ted

This amazing level of hostility toward people that don't know as much as you do, or think you do, is horrifying. Flatpick, tell us more about your monthly gathering. It sounds like a must to avoid.

19 Nov 07 - 08:49 AM (#2197413)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: jacqui.c

Agreed M.Ted.

I've only been involved in folk for the last seven years and have got rather greedy over the number of songs I want to sing. There are too many songs, not enough time. I just haven't had the time to commit to memory all the songs I want to sing.

It is possible to use a crib sheet and maintain eye contact with the audience - I try just to flick the eyes down to glance at the next line and then sing it out to the audience. There are certain songs I can do from memory right now, but those I haven't sung for some time can escape me and I do like to try a have some diversity when I'm at a song circle, which is generally the only place I get to sing.

I've certainly never been paid for singing, nor do I ever expect to be. I sing for the love of it and would avoid like the plague any song circle that laid down rules for the use of crib sheets.

That being said, I have been at song circles where someone has been reading the words straight off the page, without any attempt to sing the song or make contact with the audience. In a couple of cases this had been someone who has been singing for many years ans has never got around to learning the songs - that is not really acceptable. There are others who have such a small repertoire of songs that the same ones come out time after time after time after time..............

19 Nov 07 - 09:36 AM (#2197449)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,Young Buchan

Once upon a time there was an oral tradition. In it the songs evolved because people developed or improvised bits if they couldn't remember exactly what was missing but instead came up with something they could live with. This usually took one of two forms. Either they made up rubbish which sounded like what they remembered hearing: so Queen Jane became our neighbour for six days or more, Sir Hugh found that it rained, it rained American corn, or Johnny Faa cast his grandma in the corner-o; alternatively, and most often, they came up with a sensible seamless correction which passed easily into the tradition. This was much of the charm, and much of the distinguishing quality, of folk music. Then the working class learned to read and everyone said that that tradition would die because the book version would become set in stone. But it didn't happen because even though some people learnt from books, and even though Harry Cox allegedly had a box of broadsides under his bed, no singer (except perhaps the Coppers) would think of taking the written text with them to the pub; and so they all made sure they had learnt their songs inside out before they tried singing them in public, and the adrenalin rush, if they did forget something, helped them use the same strategies as before. Then radio came in; and it was predicted the broadcast versions would drive out all variation; and when it failed to happen the same prognostication was made regarding records and tapes and CDs. And it didn't happen, for the same reason – at the point of performance, singers were still operating on their own. Then one day a folk singer walked into a club with the words of his songs, and used them to sing from. And noone told him to go away and not try again until he'd learnt the song thoroughly. And so every time he sang the song it was exactly the same.
And the tradition died.
And our generation killed it.

19 Nov 07 - 10:30 AM (#2197476)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: the lemonade lady

Yes I do and with my eyes wide open I hasten to add.


19 Nov 07 - 11:02 AM (#2197502)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: M.Ted

If folk music is being killed off, it is because it has become exclusive, instead of inclusive--which, given the fact that it is supposed to be "The People's Music", is slightly absurd.

19 Nov 07 - 11:28 AM (#2197528)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,Rog Peek

Unless I am really sure of the guitar however, I'll sing a cappella (of course, as a man I find multi-tasking difficult). I still make the odd mistake even then. Only once have I gone completely blank, it still haunts me.

Still, a man once said to me "the man who never made a mistake, never made anything". I guess this can be applied to singing a song.


19 Nov 07 - 01:49 PM (#2197632)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Barry Finn

Know your own limitations. If you want to sing from pages go sing where that's exceptable, if you want to sing where they don't do that don't bring your notes or just go to sing along with the choruses or just don't sing until you can do as the Romans do.


19 Nov 07 - 02:19 PM (#2197660)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: M.Ted

I'll tell you what, Barry, I'll stay home. Because I don't go where I am not welcome. But I am as good a singer as most, and can play as well as most. If I'm not welcome, most aren't welcome.
And if most are not welcome, it isn't folk music, is it?

20 Nov 07 - 02:55 AM (#2198051)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Barry Finn

Stay home then Ted, because if the group/venue is a place where it's been established that they don't tolerate singing from the page
(some trad clubs are like that) then follow what's already been set. If it's exceptable, that's fine too. Doesn't matter if you're a good singer or not. When in Rome do as the Romans do......don't come in & change it on your account.


20 Nov 07 - 04:18 AM (#2198082)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,Fall of the Roman Empire

Do you know why the great, world dominating Empire of Rome collapsed?

It failed to change, adapt and move with the times.

Archealogical finds from the beginning of the Roman Empire show great technological advances from bridge building to ballistics, communications to city planning.

Finds from the end of the Roman Empire show that they were using the same equipment as at the beginning, despite there being radical differences in lifestyle and behaviour.

It's all very well saying "if it isn't broken, don't fix it" but the same is also true: Just because something isn't broken, doesn't mean it should never eveolve.

20 Nov 07 - 04:23 AM (#2198087)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Joe Offer

I'm a choir singer. I've sung in choirs since fifth grade, usually twice on Sunday and once or twice during the week. I sing from hymnals, and occasionally from sheet music. I've never been expected to sing choir songs from memory, although I know many of the songs I sing by heart.
So, that's what I'm used to. I don't look at the music all that much, but it does give me a measure of security. I think it makes me a better singer, not to have to worry about screwing up the words.

I've also always sung campfire songs, and you really can't sing from pieces of paper at a campfire. So, I sing those songs by heart, and make up lyrics to fill in what I forget. In my community, a Sacramento suburb with a population of 70,000 people, I was known as "that guy who sings."

But about fifteen years ago, I started going to song circles. The first one used the Rise Up Singing songbook, and I soon became the dominant singer in the group because legend has it that I know all the songs in the book (I think it's more like 3/4 of them).

After I started posting at Mudcat in early 1997, I found out about other song gatherings in my area and in various places in the U.S., and I found myself in an environment of people who looked down on singers who used a book or even a cheat sheet. They were quite tolerant of people who'd forget a song midway and have to start over three times, but they firmly believed their doctrine that a person who uses a book, can't sing well. Well, I have to say I find that doctrine intimidating and unfair - and usually I do my best to ignore it. Out of self defense, I keep my Rise Up Singing book hidden - I've been tempted to conceal it inside a copy of Penthouse or something. Usually, I sing from large-print sheets I keep in a black folder that looks like what I use for choir.

I guess I have to admit that the pressure to sing from memory has made me a better singer, because I've learned to look at my notes only when I really need to - but I'm glad to have the security of those notes.

I do the same thing as a public speaker - I get nervous if I don't have my yellow legal sheets of notes, but I rarely look at them. So, forgive me, but why not judge my singing on how it sounds, and not on whether I'm holding a piece of paper or not? Over ten years, I've learned a lot - thanks in great part to the majority of people who didn't get huffy about my shortcomings as a singer.


20 Nov 07 - 04:32 AM (#2198095)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GerryMc

I know the words to about 70 songs but can't go on stage without a set list!

Gerry :-)

20 Nov 07 - 06:35 AM (#2198170)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,LTS pretending to work

"you really can't sing from pieces of paper at a campfire"

Actually Joe, you can, but it does tend to make the bonfire bigger!


20 Nov 07 - 06:41 AM (#2198172)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Keith A of Hertford

I never use a sheet, for all the reasons already given, plus one.
If you are singing from memory, who can complain if your memory plays tricks.
So if you are singing someone elses song, and you think a line might sound better with a slight alteration...

20 Nov 07 - 07:46 AM (#2198201)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: jonm

The ring-binder seems to be the most common accessory at sessions now.

I have only twice sung in public from the printed words and hated it (even when I knew the lyric I was drawn to the printed page and lost connection with the performance), although I do prepare cheat-sheets with lyrics and chords for three purposes - 1. to fix in my own mind what I am playing; 2. to act as a reminder when I revisit a song after a few years, and 3. as an aid to anyone who may be joining in with me (there are a number of people I trust to do this without rehearsal, and we NEVER have time to rehearse together). I have a rolling repertoire of about 60 songs from a total list of 200+ which I think are within a couple of hours' practice of being OK.

My method of remembering is practice, and lots of it. It's amazing how many songs my kids know all the words to simply because I've sung them to sleep - should have avoided the rude ones! I do recognise that I have a good memory and am very adaptable musically - it feels like a lot of what I do is being developed "live" as I do it, not just going through the mechanical motions - so I do not wish to criticise those who feel the need for the ring-binder crutch. Does that sound like a piece of bondage equipment?

However, I feel that in order to establish an emotional connection with the lyrics, I need to have them in memory.

If I have been asked to do something special for a particular occasion at short notice, I may use a lyric sheet with just key words, say one per verse plus one from any lines I find I forget, hidden on the floor (in BIG print!) as an aide memoire. Plus, of course, for any gig, I will have a written set list. Not that I ever stick to it....

20 Nov 07 - 07:56 AM (#2198205)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Ian

Im sorry but Im a bloke singer. I can not multi task ie read and sing at the same time so I mentally practice the songs I choose to sing prior to singing them. I do usually have a word book to refer to if in doubt of an odd line or verse order.

20 Nov 07 - 08:02 AM (#2198208)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: M.Ted

I'll let you in on a secret, Barry--I can generally sing, or play along with anybody, without benefit of notation. I am tired of hearing people who claim to love folk music get all upset because their numbers are dwindling. This is why--

And by the way, the word is "acceptable"--

20 Nov 07 - 08:14 AM (#2198212)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Ian

To add to my previous.
There is no need now ever to forget words or tune. Just record your self on an i pod and put the ear piece in (suitably hidden under long hair)and press play. As you just sing along with yourself you can pause to suit your performance or prompt your self with an introduction.
Eye sight and memory probs solved in one.

I know what you are going to say; the only draw back is that as you get older along with eye sight and memory goes the hair. Theres no hiding place for the wire.

20 Nov 07 - 11:32 AM (#2198354)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Barry Finn

Ted, thanks for letting me in on your secret & the spelling of "acceptable", you're a sport.

You haven't heard me claim or complain that folk music numbers are dwindling nor that I'm upset with the folk sing scene, have you? I don't find that to be true where I frequent.
A suggestion M Ted. When there's a club or venue that doesn't like book singers leave your book at home & go out anyway & when it's "acceptable" by all means bring your book. But don't spite yourself by staying home because you don't agree with those that find reading from books unacceptable.

I do, once in a great while pull out the words to a new song I'm working on, espically if I just wrote it but still not in a place where the written worte in not "acceptable" & I do ask & warn all before hand.

Hi Joe
I figured I'd be hearing from you about RUS. I'm not against RUS or groups singing mostly from books or the printed page, I only mind it when they come into another club/venue & desire to create the same atmosphere. There are lots of groups & people that leave those sings because it's not for them. You had the same situation out in San Francisco, yrs back. The folk society there had many very talented singers within their ranks. When I lived there I frequented those sings religously. Then came the books & all your talent left & orginized their own session. When I attended that sing last June no one I knew from the old days was there but I did find them across the bay & elsewhere & the old sing I attended was awful, it was painful to see what had happened. What would happen at your SF Shantey sing if they all started bringing in books? A cheat sheet here & there, ok.
Same thing happened in Boston. Their sings are just as painful. What was once a lively & colorful sing went boring & stagnant. It was a matter of bringing the sing down to the lowest common denominator instead of firguring out how to,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,.
Joe, the next time I have the pleasure of singing with you I'll want to borrow your penthouse for a peek, didn't see it this last time, you are good.

There are places that I go where some folks use books or pages, I don't care. Some of them are learning, some feel better doing it that way, I don't care. I like to hear the new kid on the block, one can always learn from them & the older kid owes I to them to help them along if they want the music to continue.

I also attend some sessions where the written word is the "kiss of death". I've never been to an Irish session where if asked to sing you'd ever get asked again if you sanng from a sheet.

Once every 5 or so yrs I attend a book session. At a "book session"
the group absolutly offers no incentive for the sessioned singer to come back, they've bored them to tears & they never lave room for their own improvement.

So you can have it in 3 ways, your choice. I settle for 2 of those.

Does anyone care to dicuss how they think that these different singing worlds could meet & co-exist, where all could live & grow hapilly together instead of how we can exist apart?
New thread anyone?


20 Nov 07 - 12:15 PM (#2198416)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: M.Ted

It isn't about books, Barry--it's about groups of people who do have the "My Way or the Highway" rule--it's about "This is what we do, this is how we do it" and it's about "if you do things differently, you're not welcome".

It's about narrow-minded people, entrenched people who have made up a lot of reasons for not accepting others--

20 Nov 07 - 01:03 PM (#2198467)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: M.Ted

Incidentally, to be fair, I don't really know if people here are really as cold as some of the comments would indicate. And I don't know if your groups and circles are really as intolerant as you make them sound. Maybe some of you are just venting frustration--maybe you are overstating things to make a point--I hope so.

20 Nov 07 - 02:51 PM (#2198547)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Joe Offer

Hi, Barry-
I'd agree with Ted: it isn't about books. It's more about the quality of singers. Many of the people in my song circle sing once a month - I sing every day, and that makes a difference. I usually show up late for the Sacramento Song Circle because it's a 40-mile drive from my home. I have to admit that many times when I walk in the door, the singing is pretty lame. The real singers show up late, and then stay to the bitter end. There may be only half a dozen singers left at the end of the evening, and the singing can get really good. But in the meantime, we've given a number of nonsingers a chance to sing. In the 15 years I've sung with the Sacramento group, I've seen a number of people become pretty good singers - and a number of other people are just as hopeless as they've always been, but they have a good time.
And having a good time is what it's all about, I think. I believe that if we singers really believe in "folk" music, we have an obligation to include and encourage everyone, no matter what the quality of their singing. Sometimes, that takes patience and tolerance. We also need to work hard to improve the quality and variety of singing in our groups, so they are gatherings where both singers and nonsingers can feel comfortable. Chantey sings work perfectly for that, but not everybody wants to sing sea songs.


20 Nov 07 - 03:27 PM (#2198586)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: PoppaGator

The reason that so many of the ancient story-song ballads were written in rhyme and set to music in the first place was to facilitate memorization. Shared folk culture, or "lore," survived only because the bards or troubadors within a society held the words within their minds and were able to pass the material on down, generation after generation.

It boggles the mind to realize that even tremendously lengthy epic poems (like the Iliad and the Odyssey) survive to this day only because successive generations of pre-literate balladeers were able to commit them to memory.

Of course, in today's world, we all have way too much stuff cluttering up our brains to even consider learning such humonguous texts verbatim. Also, precious few of us seem to be in a position to make a full-time profession out of preserving and performing traditional song.

I agree with MTed ~ live and let live ~ but while I encourage tolerance of singers' rights to use notes or not, I do think we should all repect and be conscious of the notion that learning and knowing songs is part of folk-music tradition and history, and that visibly reading either words or music, while entirely normal for classical performance, choir singing, etc., can justifiably be seen as inappropriate in many folk-music contexts.

20 Nov 07 - 11:09 PM (#2198939)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Ferrara

From M. Ted:
It isn't about books, Barry--it's about groups of people who do have the "My Way or the Highway" rule--it's about "This is what we do, this is how we do it" and it's about "if you do things differently, you're not welcome".

It's about narrow-minded people, entrenched people who have made up a lot of reasons for not accepting others--

You know, I think I've said here, in a number of ways that I believe a firm "no song sheets" rule, no exceptions no matter what the context or venue, doesn't make sense and I do not support it. I've named a number of situations where I think it's fine and disagree with people who want to prohibit it across the board.

Now I want to say that "This is what we do, this is how we do it" is a perfectly legitimate sentiment. If I give a singing party and someone wants to divide everyone up in groups and play Trivia and Monopoly, I have the right to say, "Sorry, that's not what we're here for." Similarly, I hope the folks who started a venue and are regulars there have the right to say "Sorry, that's not what we're here for" to folks who want to read songs.

It's a matter of community in a way. A community of strong singers who like spontaneity do not have an obligation to encourage weaker or less spontaneous singers at their session.. Their community formed because of a certain commonality of approach and they have the right to keep it that way.

BTW folk music has probably always had an element of exclusivity. (I've talked about this before, I think.) In many musical traditions and groups, the "junior" people were supposed to be seen and not heard until they were formally recognized by the "senior" people. It hasn't destroyed folk music yet.

21 Nov 07 - 12:16 AM (#2198957)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: M.Ted

I am appalled at these "ideas"---and I have heard them before, and not from Pete Seeger.

"A community of strong singers who like spontaneity do not have an obligation to encourage weaker or less spontaneous singers at their session.."

"BTW folk music has probably always had an element of exclusivity. (I've talked about this before, I think.) In many musical traditions and groups, the "junior" people were supposed to be seen and not heard until they were formally recognized by the "senior" people."

You make folk music sound elitist and paternalistic. I hope you have simply expressed your thoughts too hastily.

21 Nov 07 - 02:22 AM (#2198986)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: Barry Finn

This past Monday I attended an Irish session, I do this weekly. From 7:00 pm to 9:00pm it's a slow session (no singing ever happens here) after that it's a regular session. There were plenty of teens, maybe 5 or 6 all very good, plus a number of college kids (Boston College is close by) 1 an all Ireland junior fiddler, sometimes there may even be a couple of good to very good pre-teens (the average # is probably 20-25 playerss at the height of the session). They get called on to lead or lead as they see fit & play with their elders (the oldest regular, a bones player, probably in his 90's) who treat them as musical peers. Musicians that can't keep up with the session either wait until there's a tune they can keep up with or sit back for a slow air otherwise, they only play in the slow session. As for singers, you sing when you get invited, once a woman used a sheet, she was never asked again. The older group are musicians that are maily Irish born & bred & learn their music in the old way, some are from the old Dudley Street dance tradition of the 40's & 50's.
I bring this Irish session into the discussion because I believe what I'm presenting is the norm, at least for Irish sessions (except for the age) in the USA that I've heard of. Why is it that this is common & OK for Irish sessions but some think it's not ok for singing sessions? What are the different dynamics? Irish sessions are a bit closer to a living tradition, no? Do those sessions retain a higher quality of musicianship while encouraging players to practice at home & to learn their music in a traditional oral way while not discouraging them at the same time. Suppose they encouraged beginners to bring in sheet music & they can learn as they go, how would those sessions survive? They would not!
The more you have books & notes, the more the singing session becomes a practice or a learning session, a little is ok, sometimes in someplaces, IMHO, maybe in many cases but not all, to much & you drive out the backbone and you end up dumbing it down. Is it fun when it becomes a learning or practice session? Fun for who? Want a teacher, where do you go to find one? At a session? Is that where they teach? Where do you go to learn or practice at a session?


21 Nov 07 - 05:02 AM (#2199043)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: My guru always said

That sounds like a fantastic session Barry & one I'd like to spend an evening in though I'm not a musician. You also make some really good points there about each person being driven by their desire to improve their art, and this type of session would actively encourage people to practise, practise, practise!!

For sure, there are different types and 'levels' of Sessions, Singarounds, Song Circles, Campfire sessions and Folk Clubs in the UK, USA or anywhere else in the World. Again I see that we are all different and that is shown strikingly in this thread. Each person has his/her own reasons for singing or playing music, whether it be a love or talent for the songs or music, a desire to offer those songs, stories and pieces to others or a need to spread the word about their own particular joy and lifestyle and hopefully encourage others to join them.

If we're talking about Performers, whether paid or not, surely it is only right that they should be practised in their Art? To entertain or perform in front of others a person should be capable of doing so. Certainly an aide-memoire could be to hand (and a set list) but I feel that the performance should be done from memory as a matter of course, unless exceptional reasons, such as failing memory for aging performers, prevents this.

Where singing or playing music for sheer pleasure amongst your friends or peers, then surely the 'book/cribsheet' question would have been answered during previous enjoyable evenings.

If one is visiting another club or singaround then is it fairly normal to either check first as to what is normal for the participants regarding the standard of performance and one can make the decision whether to join in their 'methods' - preferential to 'rules'.

We are a diverse world-wide Music Community, I am minded of an old saying: You cut your coat according to your cloth.

21 Nov 07 - 05:43 AM (#2199063)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,Santa

I don't think I've ever actually encountered a club that forbade singing from the page, but think that they would be well within their rights to do so, if that was their approach to music. It is not as though there was only one club in the land, one place to play/sing, and some overall gauleiter was dominating the land. It isn't that way, and to argue it is can only weaken whatever case is being made.

I go to a club to hear singing and/or music. I believe that the relationship between the performer and the audience, from the highest professional to the most embarassingly amateur, is part of the performance. I don't believe that you do get the same quality of performance if the performer has to consult the words. I do believe it shows arrogance by the performer and is derogatory to the club audience. (I don't need to learn, I can do my practicing here, the audience doesn't matter a **** anyway.)
I thought the whole point was to step up and show something you had learnt, something you could do, not one step in the learning process. Is this the "me, me, I want it NOW" generation in action? Or just everyday selfishness? You want the public acknowledgement of performance, the respect, then you have to learn it and earn it. Not that the ocassional example (whether through age or whatever) is going to destroy traditional music, or any such nonsense, any more than any single poor performance is, but a widespread adoption would.

As for closing your eyes to tell them apart - well, I might if the sound was particularly good, but why should I? The performance is more than just the sound produced.

Art isn't paint-by-numbers. If I want to see people reading I would go to a reading club.

Tonight is a singer's night: I'll see if anyone reads from notes whilst singing/playing.

re the Romans: it is a gross misunderstanding to suggest they were rigidly unchanging. Archeologists can detect different periods in the Empire from the pottery, or from the Army's uniform and equipment, to name but two visible areas. Change was slower in those days than nowadays, but it certainly still existed. If you wish to quote an attempt to freeze society, then perhaps Japan's Samurai culture was one notable attempt.

21 Nov 07 - 08:33 AM (#2199143)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?

This may sound like pedantry, especially since we are a folk network rather than The British School At Athens, but I think there is a relevant point:
PoppaGator says that the enormously long Homeric epics were memorised. It is probable that this was true only in the last and most degenerate stage of their pre-written transmission. Until then it is likely that the process was as described by Milman Parry and others as still surviving in the Balkans well into the twentieth century, namely the epic bard memorized a number of 'set scenes' e.g. fights of different kinds and with different numbers of participants, and full lines, also a vast number and variety of part lines. The skill of the bard lay in improvising a story by e.g. starting with details of a character or an action, and then pulling out of memory an appropriate scene, line or end of line if at any point his ability to improvise in the correct metre started to run out. It is exactly this creative change in telling a story which I have argued in a previous contribution to this string is both the best feature of folk music and the one most completely destroyed by reading.

21 Nov 07 - 08:38 AM (#2199148)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,Young Buchan

Sorry. The last contrib. was from me.

21 Nov 07 - 10:13 AM (#2199203)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: M.Ted

The session Barry describes seems to be considerably more tolerant and open a place than he allows--they seem, in fact to allow people to practice, learn, and play--to fit in whatever way they want or can.

It isn't, as Santa seems to think, about "stepping up and showing what you had learnt"--it is about sharing, and taking part in a community experience. People who have songbooks are, after all, simply trying to participate, in the best way that they can. Good leaders find ways to include people--songbooks aren't the only way, but they work.

I mentioned this discussion to a neighbor who said, "I sing from a songbook in church. If it's good enough for God, it ought to be good enough for the Folklore Society of Greater Washington."

21 Nov 07 - 11:06 AM (#2199237)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: M.Ted

Young Buchan: Epic bards are not fto be confused with folksingers. The epic singers are meticulously schooled in their art, and are held in the same regard as fine artists and historians.

As relates to this discussion, I've heard of a person who took his gusle to a sing around and endeavored to perform excerpts from "The Battle of Kosovo"--in spite of the fact that he knew the text as if it were his own child, and bowed his instrument with a firm and confident hand, he was cut off, and asked never to return. So much for multiculturalism;-)

21 Nov 07 - 11:55 AM (#2199284)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,TJ in San Diego

By all means, use your memory. I can't think of much to add to Don Firth's take on this. I always felt that the audience deserved to see a performer who appeared to truly care about the content of the songs he or she chose to sing. In a way, singing with feeling and respect for the content is also acting. I have seen singers - vocal groups seem more guilty of this - that do a very polished and professional act that looks and sounds exactly the same every single time. They have memorized the material, but to what end?

It takes a lot of preparation and practice to look at ease and comfortable on stage and with the performance. That preparation should also give you the freedom to improvise and vary your performance enough so that it doesn't become stale for you or the audience. Also, I personally like to see performers who don't appear to take themselves too seriously - who seem to really LIKE what they are doing and are happily sharing it with the audience.

Of course, at Don's age and mine, you start to become more and more grateful for retaining the ability to memorize anything longer than your driver's license number...

21 Nov 07 - 12:18 PM (#2199298)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,Ermintruder

I reckon that about a quarter of the people who sing regularly at the singaround I attend use lyric sheets but this doesn't stop it from being a tremendously enjoyable night. The fact that it's all free and easy encourages people who have just popped in for a drink, to try a song (often by borrowing someone's songbook). As M Ted said, it's all about the community experience. It's not performing, it's sharing songs.

22 Nov 07 - 03:04 AM (#2199728)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: GUEST,Jim Carroll

"Young Buchan: Epic bards are not fto be confused with folksingers. The epic singers are meticulously schooled in their art, and are held in the same regard as fine artists and historians."
Do you believe that at the height of the tradition, traditional singers weren't? Hmmm!

Jim Carroll

22 Nov 07 - 03:45 AM (#2199740)
Subject: RE: Do you sing from Memory?
From: M.Ted

I would say that the traditional singers that you are referring to would be much akin to the epic singers, both as fine artists and as stewards of a cultural trove. I am speaking of folksingers either of the sort that we find in contemporary song circles and such places, or of the sort that sang informally and socially in the past (though many were valuable repositories for folk songs).

In my mind, everyone and anyone may sing a song, but only a few skilled and gifted people are the active bearers of any given performance tradition. The greatest voices are echoed in every heart, as the prophet said.

I love both story and song, so I like epics, and tend to think of the epic as the essence of literature, theatre, and music.--and must confess that Young Buchan's broaching of the subject caused me to dig out a copy of "The Battle of Kosovo" and to thumb through it when I should have being doing chores today.