|Any singer in a Rock-Band who also plays an Instrument is burdened by the task of learning Lyrics. Memorized Lyrics is one of the features which separates Songwriters from Jazz-Musicians. What techniques can be used to squeeze Lyrics into memory? One quote from Mike Watt’s homepage spured me further:
I got to thinking about actors remembering long scripts and singing-bassists need to remember 90+ minutes of vocals. How do actors memorize their lines, and if they have specific techniques, can these be transposed for use by singers? What is the singing-bassists’ relationship to his lyrics, anyway? Isn’t there enough going on with placing the syllables and the beats at the correct intervals in the song? Are lyrics secondary for Singing Bassists?
|Lyrics Are A Pain To Memorize|
Messing up a solitary lyric can lead to total breakdown of the singing-bass-playing synchronization. So mastering lyrical content is definitely important for a singing-bassist. Boiling down to a single question:
What are the best ways to memorize lyrics?
I asked a colleague of mine, who has appeared in many plays, how he learns lines from a script. Bill West is his name, and he replied that he often associates lines with either narrative context, or with positions on the stage (or both). Both these associates are helpful to jog the memory. Unless the Singing-Bassist either installs multiple microphones at various locations on the stage or wears a Garth-Brooks-style microphone, location-association is not an option for the singing bassist. But associating the lyrics with narrative context can be used by singer-songwriters, of course.
I then asked some questions about lyrics and memorization to two previous interviewees of Singing Bassist: Steve Kilbey of the four-piece rock band The Church, and Chris Ballew of the three-piece rock band The Presidents. The contrasts in their answers reflect, in my view, the differences in role-assignments between singing-bassist-led trios and quartets. And yet, their replies do exhibit similarities which may be somewhat universal about the songwriting psychology of singing-bassists. I.e., is the singing-bassist more vocalist or more instrumentalist? Is the singing-bassist more lyricist or more fretboard-surfer? The following questions were conceived to find this out.
- Do you find yourself staring at lyric sheets in order to memorize them?
Steve Kilbey: I don’t stare at lyrics, I listen (to them).
- Do lyrics sprout up during group rehearsals or are they more often pre-prepared solo?
- Do you have lyrics prepared and memorized when you record music with the band?
Chris Ballew: Steve Kilbey: No…..i read the lyrics off paper when i record usually….i only gradually memorize them over a period of time.
- What types of lyrics were most time-intensive to memorize?
- Do any songs’ lyrics pose persistent memorization problems? What makes them so difficult?
- Do you find it beneficial for the memory to take breaks from memorization?
Steve Kilbey: No….constant repetition needed for words or they get rusty.
- Do you ever note the initial lyrics of songs next to their entries in a set-list?
Steve Kilbey: Very rarely do i ever have lyrics on stage…but sometimes i may have a few key words if doing a lot of new material
- Do you ever have lyrical black-out and does it ever affect your bass-playing?
Steve Kilbey: Yes I do…if it creeps into bass playing you gotta disaster on your hands…..luckily it only happens very rarely that both bass n lyrics break down at once.
- How do you recover from lyrical blackout?
Steve Kilbey: I just sing the 1st thing that comes into my head until I get back on the right track.
I had one last question for Chris Ballew about times in the performance when he improvises vocals while holding down a groove on his basitar. For instance, introducing the band while playing the verse riff of a song. I’ve only heard one other singing-bassist do this: Sting introduces the band during performances of “So Lonely” by The Police. Its a feat which seems so banal to the lay-spectator but it requires extensive rewriting of instinctual toe-tapping urges. Anyway, I’ve seen Chris do this in concert and so I had to ask:
Ok., maybe I should have asked HOW he woodshedded that routine, but hey, the artist must keep some things mysterious, so I won’t ask it, I’ll just watch it concert in awe and wonder about it.
So, we see from the graciously provided replies that, lyrics are memorized in context or, interestingly enough, by listening to them. that lyrical black out might be more stressful for singers in larger bands (who react slower to performance detours), and that, unfortunately, there is no single silver-bullet mnemonic artifice for remembering songs’ lyrics. Mastering the lyrics is an integral part of the performance of live music. Lyrics separate us from Jazz Music. Time must be allocated to lyric preparation if we want to make performances in front of paying audience members!
Thanks to Steve Kilbey, Chris Ballew, and Bill West for sharing their insight.