A lot of performing songwriters share the fear of forgetting their lyrics when they’re playing in front of an audience. Even though you probably thought that’s an incurable problem, there are things you can do to help keep those lyrics flowing.
“What’s the Next Line?”
A lot of times we start to think “okay, what’s the next line?” when we’re onstage. We don’t normally think that way when we’re at home practicing, but on stage we get so afraid of making a mistake and risking social rejection that our fear forces us to ask ourselves these questions. As if it’s going to help our performance be perfect.
Quite the opposite happens, though. Normally when we ask ourselves questions like “what’s the next line?” it makes us more nervous, 1. Because it’s reminding us that forgetting the lyrics is a possibility (we weren’t even thinking of that when we were practicing at home) and 2. It’s not what we normally do when we’re practicing by ourselves. It’s a break in our routine. And the last place we want a break in our routine is when we’re up onstage.
Focus on the Appropriate Emotion
So how do we alleviate this from happening? The key is to focus your mind on the emotion of the song, and what the lead character is experiencing. Your mind can only really focus on one main thing at a time. When you focus your mind on your emotions and what your lead character is going through in your lyrics, there’s no room for the question “what’s my next line?” because you’re busy thinking about other (more important) things. Get involved in the story you’re presenting. Think of yourself as an actor.
Not only that, but when you get into thinking about your character’s emotions, the lyrics will be there, because you’re thinking in terms of a full story and not just a bunch of lines. You’re thinking in terms of a whole and not just a few small parts. You’re experiencing a story as it happens, as opposed to listing some lines in your head.
Another great side effect of thinking this way is your stage presence will be better. Why? Well, one of the most important jobs a singer has is to fuse emotion with his lyrics. The lyrics and the delivery of the words need to be working together.
I’m a big proponent of not using a lyric sheet when you’re onstage for this exact reason. Think about the last time you’ve been to an open mic and saw someone sitting up on his stool singing along to a lyric sheet that’s sitting on a music stand in front of him. If you know what I’m talking about, I can pretty much guarantee you’ve seen a singer whose lyrics are separate from the delivery of his words. It has to be, if he doesn’t even know which words are coming next, until he sees them on the page in front of him.
In the spoken word our voice tone carries a lot more meaning than the words we say. Singing is an exaggerated form of speech, so this concept applies to singing as well. If you start to think about the emotions you should be feeling when you’re singing and telling your story, it’ll improve your vocal performance.
Practice, Practice, Practice
That being said, don’t think you can get up on stage completely unprepared using this technique and think the lyrics will just come to you. Practice is crucial.
Practice at home without your lyric sheet. A lot. Change up the way you practice to focus specifically on your lyrics. Try singing your songs a cappella. Then try singing them a cappella at double their normal speed, just to see how you can handle that change while you’re at home practicing. It’ll better prepare you for the hectic nature of the stage.
And if you’re someone who currently plays live with a lyric sheet in front of you, you can slowly get away from that habit. If you normally perform five songs with a lyric sheet, next time you have a gig, try only playing four songs with the sheet. When you’re confident with that you can drop it down to only three songs with the sheet, then two, etc. Before you know it, you’ll wonder why you ever needed the lyric sheet at all during your live performances.
As a Last Resort, Improvise
For the moments when you slip up and forget a line, just be cool and throw something else in there. Most people probably won’t notice anyway. Especially if it’s your own song and they’re not familiar with the lyrics. If you forget a lyric DON’T stop playing, or laugh and say something like “I’m so stupid, I forgot my own words.” You don’t want to draw attention to something that everyone else probably hasn’t noticed anyway.
It’s also important to realize that if you forget a line, it’s no big deal. You don’t want to make a habit of it, but all performers experience some form of forgetfulness from time to time. Just realize it’s okay. It doesn’t define you, it’s just a silly slip up. Then forget it and move on. I can’t tell you how important it is to not dwell on small mishaps like that.
Remembering your lyrics is a conquerable feat. Just be persistent and remember to focus on the emotions that your lead character is going through. And practice! Nothing worthwhile happens overnight. Most importantly, have fun with it and try not to take each performance too seriously. Just let it be what it was and move forward to the next one.