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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
lamarca Do you sing from Memory? (170* d) RE: Do you sing from Memory? 18 Nov 07

If a song really grabs me, it starts to "sing me" - spinning around in my head, making me sing the same two lines I can remember over and over until I'm forced to learn the whole thing by heart in self-defense!

I've found that as I get older, the songs that stay in my memory are the ones I learned because they really spoke to me. Songs that I learned to fit the topic for the monthly song-swap or because they were "clever" fade quickly - probably because I don't love them in the same way, and thus don't keep singing them. If I'm sitting around with friends, swapping songs, I'll sometimes try to dip back in the mental archive to retrieve one of these songs if it fits the mood, but frequently will go up on the words, laugh and let someone else sing instead. Or, if I'm in the grips of New Song Fever, but haven't quite got it down yet, I'll tell my friends that this is "a work in progress" and use a cheat sheet.

But when I and my husband are performing, we sing from memory, and have practiced what we're going to sing. Even Yo-yo Ma or Placido Domingo wouldn't dream of going on stage to perform a piece they hadn't rigorously practiced. While many folk performers have a large repertoire, and don't always have a firm set list for a given performance, they'll frequently stick to songs they've run through within recent memory. I've often requested that a performer do a song from his or her "back catalog" in the second set, and been told "I'm sorry, but it's been so long since I've sung that, I don't think I can do it justice..."

That said, I've watched the late, great Helen Schneyer put the booklet from one of her Folk Legacy recordings on the piano, and sing a song she recorded 20 years ago with the same passion and vibrancy. The difference is that she HAD learned those songs by heart, and they had left an imprint in her soul that she remembered and could make the audience feel again, even though she needed help with word retrieval in her later years. I've seen other folk performers do the same thing, and I've also seen some that should have, but didn't bother, and instead showed the audience the disrespect of launching into repertoire they hadn't practiced and couldn't remember, not just for one song, but repeatedly.

My feeling is that if you want to be a performer - that is, get up on a stage and have people pay to hear you (Whether you're getting directly paid or you're performing for free at a festival the audience paid to attend), you owe them three things:

1. A love of your material so great it leads you to learn it and make it your own.

2. A desire to communicate the essence or story of the song to others, so that you learn as much about the song as you can - where did it come from? what is it about (people, place and time period)? why do you love it?

3. Enough respect for your audience to have practiced your material so that you can give them as good a performance as you can.

If you can't do these three things, you're not ready to be an interpreter or communicator of songs to a dedicated listening audience. It's better to sing socially, share songs with friends or at group sing-arounds and enjoy the music. Not everyone has to be a "performer" - making music with friends is what folk music is about!

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