It happens to every live performer at some point in their career; some with greater frequency. So, you’re singing a song you know by heart. You’ve sung it at least a couple hundred times. Then, just like your heart skipping a beat, you reach for the next line of the song and have no clue what to sing.
Sometimes when you sing something you’ve done over and over, it’s like you’re on automatic pilot; and then, you suddenly start to think a little more deeply about what you’re saying in the song, and you lose your place. When or if that happens, you should try to cover, make something up; or, if it’s really obvious, then stop, apologize, crack a joke, and move on.
But there are times when remembering the lyrics to a song can become a challenge for reasons that boggle the mind, reasons that are probably bouncing around in that empty space not yet occupied by the lyric. Even singer-songwriters go up on lines in original pieces they’ve crafted and often set up cheat sheets as a safety net.
Help Is On The Way
There are a number of things you can do to improve your memory. The best practices work when they are related directly to each specific song. The following are some tips for connecting with the lyric and getting the words so familiar that summoning them becomes second nature beyond the coughing or choking.
Take the lyrics of a song you’re learning. Start by selecting a short phrase or section of the beginning of the song. Then, talk and sing the words repeatedly, like a tape looping, over and over until you are able to sing it without looking at the music and without straining or stumbling. As a rule of thumb, let your ability to repeat that section three times without stopping or looking, be your guide for moving on.
Make Connections Section By Section
Repeat this repetitive looping process with the next section or phrase; then, put them both together. Keep repeating the two sections from memory. Then after you can do that three times, move on through the song, section by section, until you can repeat the entire song three times.
Once you have that mechanical process completed, review the song, making notes in terms of imagery, theme, ideas, or plot lines in the song’s story such as, first kiss, argument, break up, make up, and so on.
Record yourself both speaking the lyrics through, as well as singing the song. You want to get a feel for the rhythm and phrasing of the piece. This will help reinforce the song’s meaning while creating sensory markers that help you to know where you are in the story of the song, as well as where you stand with its rhythm and measure.
By Hand + By Heart
Slowly sing the song as you write it out as if you’re composing a letter. This gives you a physical anchor for the song. You literally have the words in your hands. This helps to connect what’s in your hands with what’s hopefully in your heart.
Make it a habit to speak through or sing through your songs while doing routine jobs such as housework, driving, yard work. You can even run them through your head silently while shopping, walking, or working out. If you’re working out at home, you can sing and speak through the reps, lifts, grunts, strains, and strolls along the treadmill.
Visual Hooks + Sinkers For The Lines
Find unique visual symbols to serve as anchors for sections of your song. Maybe a verse reminds you of a specific time or place or activity. Create these visual hooks to the lyrical lines.
One of the times your brain is most receptive is right before you go to sleep. So run through the lyrics before you go to bed. Use them to relax by, like counting sheep. Then play a recording of you singing or speaking the song to listen to as you nod off.
Practice Through Distraction
Finally, get yourself a rowdy group of friends to serve as your practice audience. Invite them to distract you as you perform these songs you’ve worked so hard to make second nature. This will make your senses work harder to reinforce hooks and anchors as you hang onto what you’ve learned. It also reinforces the images and feel for the words.
Cheat Sheets For Scanning
If there are any pieces that still cause some problems, create a cheat sheet or note cards that you can have with you that will not be obvious or distracting for your audience. Make sure you can quickly scan the words ahead so you’ll be able to continually connect with your audience. Find natural break points or transitions in your song where you can scan and not interrupt the flow and impact of your performance.
As a general rule if you have several songs you need to learn, begin the memorization process with the song that’s the most difficult, presents the most challenges, or is the one you feel you relate to the least. Save the songs that you feel are easiest for last.