Oops, I did it again or, Perry and Drawing Blanks in Public

The topic of memory lapses is much in the news these days, with Perry’s big gaffe this week. I think he would have gotten away with just putting his foot in his mouth, but then he had to go and chew vigorously.

Having experienced a few major public brain farts myself, I could sympathize, at least until I really thought about it. I don’t like Perry, admittedly, but I also detest the way these candidates are spoon-fed their talking points. Not for a moment do I believe that Perry is passionate about getting rid of those three government agencies—um, the names escape me. If he were, he’d remember their names. He wouldn’t have had to memorize them because he’d know them in a much deeper way; he would at least be able to describe them, even if he couldn’t recall what they were called.

This brings me to song recitals, which require a prodigious feat of memory. If singers truly know what they are saying—and have not just learned the words by rote—they will be much more likely to remember. I used to judge a lot of singing contests. Whenever a singer had performed some British folk song with an expression blank and clueless, as though reciting ABCs, I’d ask, “What is this piece about?” They would stare at me blankly. I would only ask this question when they managed to convey absolutely nothing other than fear, so I was rarely surprised by the answers. Granted, a few of the words were old-fashioned and not in general use, but it had never even occurred to them to come up with an overall concept. No wonder they couldn’t remember the words. No wonder they looked as if they were facing a firing squad. If you understand the words, you can begin to disappear into the piece; it’s no longer about you, it’s about the words, the story, the imagery.

In my youth, a huge emphasis was placed on learning “repertoire.” I wish someone had explained to me WHY this was important. Whatever you learn when you’re young stays with you in a much different way. You might think you’ve forgotten it entirely, but when called upon to resurrect that piece of music, you find that you can relearn it practically overnight. I bet many a Shakespearean actor wished he’d learned the part of King Lear when he was in his twenties, because learning it in your fifties or sixties would be a bitch, to say the least. Whenever I’ve resurrected something for a third time, I know it in a thoroughly comfortable way; rarely, rarely do I forget the words.

I have several videos of song repertoire up on YouTube (under my real name). I have many views but few comments. Most of my watchers are probably teenagers learning songs in voice class. Here is one &$#! comment that came through recently: “Terrible diction!” The little dear then named the word I had fluffed. Now, you can accuse me of many things, but bad diction is not one of them. I pride myself on making myself understood when I sing, so I admit, I was pretty miffed. But I decided not to fight the comment; that’s the Internet for you, every idiot gets his or her say. In any given song recital, I usually forget two or three words per song. (That usually means I am allowing myself to truly feel what I am singing; then the words become secondary.) It’s true that you can’t understand the words I have forgotten; that is because I have not said them.

I tend not to post my foreign-language songs, because I make even more mistakes in them. Although my German, Italian and French song literature passes with Americans, these songs are a tougher sell on the Internet, which serves peoples of many languages, who must have a good chortle at the way their languages come off in American mouths. (I do have a fan in Poland; some guy who owns a heavy machinery company has posted all my videos on his website, even the French ones. I was tickled pink, I have to admit. But perhaps he doesn’t speak French.)

I was a German major, and my French is fluent—well, fluent enough—and my accents in both languages are more or less convincing. Understanding these languages makes it infinitely easier to memorize songs in those languages. But memory is getting more difficult with time. Memorizing is one of those skills that can be developed; it’s a pity that no one memorizes poetry in high school anymore, because the more you memorize, the easier it gets. At one point I could memorize very quickly indeed. I remember one show where I had to learn a new piece overnight for a performance the next day (it was a new musical, so they were still tweaking it). Scary, yes, because nothing you learn overnight is going to be there in a really solid way. So now I have to compensate for fading memory by working twice as hard. I have to run new music through my head even more obsessively.

Once I had to learn a piece in Russian—the “Field of the Dead” alto solo in Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky. Wow, that was hard, like memorizing gobbledygook. I wrote it out phonetically, listened to a recording that looped and looped again—we call that learning something in “record” time, a throwback to the days of turntables—and yet, it kept eluding me. FINALLY I had learned it, or at least it passed. Never again.

I have a system that works well for me. I write out the words and carry a cheat sheet around with me, singing quietly or silently to myself while jogging, in the car, at the gym. I do this as much as possible; it’s relaxing, really, like reciting a mantra. All other thoughts and worries disappear. I know what every word means and I have subtext, an overall concept, a back story. That doesn’t mean I will be perfect when the time comes. Performing can be distracting, especially in large public spaces with people milling in and out, coughing, whispering …. All you can do is your best, and that won’t mean you’ll be perfect. Many of my colleagues (40-60- year-olds) use music now. They are done with the fear of memory glitches. I don’t blame them, but I will perform from memory for as long as I can get away with it. I believe it’s better to forget words rather than read music; I just can’t connect with an audience if I’m constantly checking to see what comes next.

And it’s interesting; no matter how badly I’ve mangled words in the past, not once did my friends or family (the only ones I believe) mention or even notice the lapses. What they notice is how you handle them; in other words, if you handle them badly. Do you stop? Do you look sheepish? As long as you don’t do those things, you are golden. Keep on smiling.

That’s what Perry didn’t do. Instead he said, as though channeling Britney Spears, “Oops.” He should have moved on.

And if some twerp does call you on it later, ignore them.

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