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.

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One Response to “Going Up and Going Off: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Memorizing Lyrics”

  1. Another Great Lonny Smith Think Piece « Miyazaki Cabaret Update: DC & Beyond Says:

    […] Another Great Lonny Smith Think Piece Lonny weighs in with his essay Going Up and Going Off: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Memorizing Lyrics […]


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