Thanks for the Memory
The question I get asked more than any other when I’m working is, “How on earth do you remember all the words?”
There are over seventy songs on my repertoire. That’s maybe ten thousand words in all. Obviously some lines and phrases are repeated within a song so the total number of different words is smaller, but even so, I admit it still seems like an awful lot to carry around in your head, available for instant recall.
The honest answer to the question is that I don’t know how I remember them. I’ve always found learning the words to new songs relatively easy. The key for me is making sure I really understand a lyric fully. If you don’t understand a song you might just as well be trying to memorise a list of random words, but once you have that understanding the words connect together properly and those connections make the song much easier to remember. After that it’s really just a matter of repetition until the whole thing becomes second nature and you stop thinking about it; somehow the words are just there when you need them.
Forgetting the words is the ultimate nightmare of any performer. Most actors and singers have had the dream where they’re standing on stage in front of an expectant audience, paralysed with terror, unable to recall a single syllable.
There are many famous examples of “drying” as it’s known. One of my favourites was attributed in the version I heard to the great actor Dame Edith Evans, best known for her portrayal of Lady Bracknell in the 1952 film version of “The Importance of Being Earnest”.
Onstage with her fellow actors the dialogue suddenly ground to a halt and a deathly hush ensued. The prompt whispered the next line from the wings, but was met with silence. The prompt repeated the line, slightly louder, but the silence continued. The prompt offered the line a third time, now clearly audible to the whole audience, but still none of the actors spoke. Eventually Dame Edith turned to the wings and said, “We know what the line is, dear, we just can’t remember who says it”.
Sometimes, forgetting the words can lead to something extraordinary. Have a listen to Ella Fitzgerald performing “Mack the Knife” live in Berlin in 1960.
At 1m 40s you hear her sing, “Oh, what’s the next chorus?” having, clearly, forgotten the words. Then, displaying a confidence that most singers would give their right arm for, she goes on to give a live masterclass in jazz improvisation. The show was being recorded for an LP release and the decision was taken to leave the “mistake” on the album. That version is now regarded as a jazz classic.
So have I ever forgotten the words? Well, that would be telling. Let’s just say that I’m pretty sure none of my audiences have ever suspected a thing! I only hope that if, one day, I do have a major memory lapse I can carry it off with Ella’s style and panache.
Now, where did I leave my car keys…..?