Going Up and Going Off: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Memorizing Lyrics

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by Lonny Smith, March 2008 Guest Blogger

I’m sitting at my desk, determined to learn two songs I’ve never sung before. Truthfully, I’m mostly just worrying about learning them. Will I need to change the key or figure out a new arrangement? Can I avoid mimicking the original singer, who does the song exactly right? Does anyone else in town do this song? Well, why don’t they — is it a bad song? Then, as beautiful and/or painful images flood in, I wonder how I might use or avoid or milk those memories. And should I even be singing these two songs at all? For a singer, there is nothing quite so like the writer’s blank page or the painter’s empty canvas as the song that has yet to be learned.

Last summer, I performed a number of songs with especially complicated and voluminous lyrics. I had problems memorizing two songs in particular, and I was still frustrated late into the rehearsal process. My struggles weren’t for a lack of effort or desire. I tried every trick I knew — mnemonic devices, tying physical actions to the words, repeating the lyrics in an endless loop, speaking the words really fast — and I still could not make it through either song without tripping up.

It’s not always like that. There are songs that require little more than a quick glance at the lyrics. Others beg for extensive work, and the amount of time spent doesn’t always seem related to the number of words or their complexity. Sometimes, the songs I love the most take far longer to memorize than the ones that simply amuse and charm me. I wonder about that.

These two particular songs presented very different challenges. One was funny but mostly irrelevant to my own experience while the other scraped uncomfortably close to the bone. In the first case, there was pressure to produce results: funny songs usually need to generate laughter. If people didn’t laugh, the song would be pointless, and I’d look like an idiot. In the other case, where certain events of the song mirrored my own dramas, I felt pressure to both distance myself from the truth as well as to express it. It wasn’t exactly my life, but some of it was. It didn’t hit me where I was, but it was exactly where I feared I could end up. Would people think the song’s anger and bitterness were my own? Would the song just be long and boring? Would anyone care if I got it right? The lyrics refused to fall into place.

One night, just as a lyric to the funny song slipped away, I let loose all of the fury, frustration, and fear pent up from failing to nail these songs down. I’d worked on these lyrics, I knew them, I could sing them perfectly in the shower, I’d written them out on paper over and over, and nothing was happening. Why not perform that? The lyrics started coming to me with less effort, and the rage directed itself into meaningful and useful choices. I tried it with the other song, and found a similar result. Somehow, expressing the frustration managed to knock away a lot of doubt, fear, and questioning. It also led to other gentler, post-anger choices like acceptance, calmness, and surrender.

It seems to me that there is a threshold — sometimes low, sometimes high — that is passed when a singer truly absorbs a song. Sometimes, this connection is made instantly. Other times, the connection eludes us and we have to struggle until we find it. When we can shift from “This song is about…” to “I feel…” or “I am…” and there’s a personal story that needs to be told, the song’s meaning and words will fall into place — but usually not a moment before.

Cabaret, A View from Lake Wobegon

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by Lonny Smith, March 2008 Guest Blogger

One of the odd compensations for moving far away from your roots is the fine-tuning of your party banter. Those of us who never before took pride in being from Minnesota (or Mississippi , or Canada , or Texas ) quickly assemble an amusing elevator speech illustrating the peculiar charms of our regional identity. Hometown small talk may not get you a job or a date, but it can set you out from the crowd and least change the subject from sports, the weather, and the never-ending horror show of the Bush Administration.

Two of my own most well-trodden hometown stories involve the movie “Fargo” and Broadway singer Linda Eder. Mentioning “Fargo,” a Coen Brothers film whose most grisly scenes unfold in my city of Brainerd, MN, never fails to lead to a rollicking chat about Midwestern accents, ice fishing, and lutefisk. All of this is fascinating gristle for the mill, but barring the eruption of genuine conversation, I usually shift to a splashier diva of my hometown than Chief of Police Marge Gunderson. In 1987, Brainerd native Linda Eder (who had been a student in my dad’s math class) won “Star Search” (the beta version of “American Idol”) and began a long journey to become a Broadway star. My father acknowledged her talent (“she’s pretty good”) and enjoyed her visits back home, but he insisted that $15 was WAY too much to pay for a ticket to one of her hometown concerts at the junior high auditorium. If time and the flow of conversation permits, this can lead to a string of other stories, all demonstrating my father’s unending befuddlement with the crazy world in which the rest of us live.

Such is the baggage I bring to the world of performance. Lured by the glow of the spotlight, I nevertheless find the sequins and make-up to be a little preposterous. We Midwesterners don’t believe in losing ourselves or in celebrating ourselves — that’s for the Baptists, and we all know about the fate awaiting them. The Linda Eders are urged to sing, but usually within the confines of a church service, school gathering, or the hockey game. Like Marge Gunderson, we know it’s best to speak plainly, dress plainly, and plainly eschew the frivolity of narcissism and self-indulgent frippery.

Of course, we’re total hypocrites. At any Fourth of July parade, potluck dinner in the church basements, or Pinewood Derby, the competitive spirit trumps Minnesotan modesty. Even the most stolid Norwegian will drop the facade when armed with gold spray paint, washers, or elbow macaroni. Like the grass growing out of the cracks in a sidewalk, creativity seeps out of the harshest environment, sometimes with an extravagance that remains unacknowledged. In my family, my father would mock me practicing scales as he secreted off to his work room, spending hours meticulously building furniture while I built vowels and breath control. It never crossed his mind that we were doing much the same thing.

Such is the baggage I bring to the world of cabaret. Without the safe guise of a character or a plot or some meaningful social commentary, there is only an individual performing on a stage. How could this not be utterly decadent, self-absorbed, and silly? What is the purpose of cabaret but to simply entertain and amuse? Is this art form, with its suspiciously French name, merely a parade of self absorption?

If we’re honest, I don’t think there is any answer other than “yes.” Yet, isn’t this one of the most valuable qualities cabaret can offer? Rather than hiding behind socially significance or existential dilemmas, cabaret is content to simply let the individual open up, joke around, dig deep, and show off. No more, no less. With no small amount of courage, we assemble our talent, our life story, and our music. As with a hometown elevator speech, we may rehearse and refine our shtick, but the purpose remains the same: we’re just trying to tell others where we came from and who we really are.

Open Mic Report

Another terrific open mic at the Warehouse Theater on Monday, March 10th. Michael Miyazaki gives us the lowdown over on Miyazaki Cabaret Update. Thanks Michael!

Cabaret Month: A Celebration!

The DC Cabaret Network celebrated Cabaret Month at the Arts Club of Washington on Sunday, March 2, 2008, with a showcase performance by the Board of Directors. Michael Miyazaki has published a write-up of the event on his Miyazaki Cabaret Update blog. Be sure and check it out.

And Matt Howe has graciously published his photos of the event over on Flickr! Be sure and go visit to see how Washington, D.C. cabaret singers and fans celebrated this wonderful event.

“Walking Among My Yesterdays”

by Ron Squeri, February 2008 guest blogger

“Walking Among My Yesterdays”
featuring Vocalist Elaine Hughes
with music direction by Michael Terence
Wednesday night I had the opportunity to see a very entertaining show at Le Canard. The show was presented as part of pianist Michael Terence’s Wednesday Showcase program. Elaine presented a mix of standards, and lesser know songs. She was equally comfortable crossing from songs with deep expression to those with great verve and humor. Michael provided very interesting and sophisticated accompaniment to Elaine’s singing. In addition, she performed two duets with special guest singers, Alice Paige, singing Bosom Buddies, and Louise DeSimone, singing a specialty version of Elegance.

This is Elaine’s 12th season performing in the showcases and in this show, she reprised favorite songs from each of her previous showcases. Having heard Elaine through the years, it is nice to see such a wonderful arc of progress in her work. She is at ease with herself, and appeared to really enjoy herself, which only made the audience enjoy her performance even more. My favorite was Elaine and Michael’s interpretation of Love Changes Everything, which genuinely moved me, which takes a lot, because I am not the biggest fan of Lord Lloyd Webber.

Michael Terrance has been hosting the Wednesday Showcases for the past 13 years, giving singers, at all levels, an opportunity to hone their skills by performing a one hour show in a very warm and nurturing setting, with great accompaniment. As there is no cover, and no minimum, (the food is excellent) this is one of the best kept secrets in town. Lousie DeSimone will be showcased on March 12, 9pm .

Again, kudos to Elaine, Michael, Alice, and Louise.

Walking Among My Yesterdays – set list

Walking Among My Yesterdays – Kander and Ebb – from The Happy Time
One of the Girls – Kander and Ebb – Woman of the Year
Broadway Baby – Stephen Sondheim – Follies
Love Changes Everything – Andrew Lloyd Webber- Aspects of Love
Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage – Noel Coward
If I Ruled the World – Music by Cyril Ornadel, lyrics by Leslie Bricusee – Pickwick
Bosom Buddies – Jerry Herman – Mame
Haven’t Got a Worry in the World – Richard Rodgers – and Oscar Hammerstein – from the play Happy Birthday by Anita Loos
What You Don’t Know About Women – Cy Coleman and David Zippel – City of Angels
The Happy Time/I Don’t Remember You – Kander and Ebb – The Happy Time
Elegance – Jerry Herman – Hello! Dolly
Why Can’t I Forget – composed by Jeffrey D. Harris, lyrics by Judy Baron
You Can Always Count on Me – Cy Coleman and David Zippel – City of Angels
Those Good, Old, Bad Old Days – Leslie Bricusse and Anthonry Newley
My Shining Hour – Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer – for the movie The Sky’s the Limit