Lyric loss - why it happens and what to do

Words by: Hannah Howie



Reading Time: 6 min


The white room. The freeze. The dry. Whatever you call it, we have all been there. We have all **forgotten the words**. Be it on stage, in an audition, at a gig - that T shirt is well worn. So firstly, let that humble you. And secondly, let it remind you; memory loss is something we have to work with, accept and prep for. And it’s manageable.

Due diligence is needed, of course. Do your homework. Research the backstory of the song and your character, and prep your choices: your vocal onsets, your quality, your breath, all that good stuff. Mine the text for nuggets of character info, note the punctuation, set intentions, find tactics, and all above, fill in any blanks with your creativity. The application of technique in guiding your storytelling will act as a bedrock in your learning, process and recall.

BUT, what happens psychologically when those words (which we know!) suddenly disappear? We have done our due diligence! We have learned the words! We have made choices! But the lyrics just...go.

This, I would offer, is your fight or flight response kicking in. She (let’s call her Nora) appears in a state of heightened adrenalin, stress or fear. And boy, Nora is very powerful. The body is literally sending out signals left, right and centre as if you are in a life or death situation. And this manifests in many ways - sweats, stress rash, shakes, elevated heart rate, and of course, lyric loss. Our body and our ancient genetic make up simply hasn’t caught up with the fact that, even if you don’t book the next audition, you will not die! In simple terms, our body goes into an overreactive, heightened, panicked state.

The GOOD thing is, in time, and with work, we can learn to redirect our focus in these situations. It will be challenging, especially if fight or flight appears a lot. But trust me, as someone who couldn’t get through her drama school performance classes without forgetting her lyrics (my Nora was very busy during this time), she can be quelled. After all, Nora is a fear response, and somewhat of a feedback loop, a learned behaviour, an invite to a party - which also means, she can be uninvited...

Dr Julie Smith, author of “Why has nobody told me this before?” and viral TikTok Psychologist explains - “Our focus is our spotlight”. Whatever we focus on is where we remain, psychologically. If you choose to focus on telling the story of your song, for example, stay in that laser sharp focused space where nothing can stop you. If you focus on ‘how is this performance coming across?’ or ‘oh my goodness, that audience member is asleep’, then the mind will no doubt shift, pull focus, and bang! Hello Nora, goodbye lyrics. So steady that focus, keep on it the story. It’s a basic one, but allow your focus to be your spotlight.

You also have periphery vision - you can see things on the sidelines of your gaze. Similarly, you also have mental peripheral vision. Nora, for example, will always trot into the room with you on scary audition days or opening nights. It’s human and natural, and shows that you care (a very welcome thing). But you can always pop Nora to one side - park the fear, if you like.

You see, the brain is odd and sometimes works in opposition to you. Before singing in public, you might be thinking ‘don’t think about being nervous, ignore the fear, it will go away’ - and what’s the one thing the brain will do? It will focus on the fear, 100%, spotlit downstage centre.

Example: Don’t think of a giant green giraffe!

 …What are you thinking of?

But if you say to yourself - “Hello Fear/Nora, I acknowledge that you are around. Yes, I am nervous, and excited too. You are welcome into this room/stage/audition, but not as my focus, only on my periphery” - then, my friend, you are starting to get somewhere.

How can you prep for this? Mindfulness. Mindfulness is the key. This isn’t the ability to meditate for days on end. No, it’s the ability to allow things to come into your mind, to acknowledge their presence, and then park the thoughts that are not useful to you right now. It’s literally a filter in your brain. Intrusive thoughts? Nora showing up? This is your response:

Thank you for your presence, darling Nora, but I am not about to die, and will place you in my mental periphery for now. At the moment, I need to focus on the story I am telling. At this moment, I am going to nail this audition*

  • a peppering of confidence and positive self talk goes a long way. Always ask yourself, what would you say to your best friend if they were in your shoes? Say THAT to yourself! We often talk to ourselves negatively. It’s 2023! Positive self talk, please and thank you.

And the best thing about all this is we can strengthen our mindfulness! There are hundreds of apps, exercises and classes available. Breathing exercises too are one of the bedrocks in calming ourselves, relaxing that vagus nerve and popping Nora in the corner. This work will slowly build that bank of strength and technique you require for those scarier days when lyrics seem to evade you.

How you learn is another huge factor to consider. Most folk fall into 3 camps - the visual, the aural, or the kinetic. Some lucky souls branch over 2 or maybe all 3 of these (well done you genetically bless people!). If you are an aural learner (relying on your ears), listen to that song whilst you are cooking, driving or gaming. If you are a visual learner, associate pictures and tangible spaces with your lyrics - allow your gestures to paint the picture in your mind’s eye whilst you’re singing. Look for patterns in the text - the alliteration, the repeated words, rhyming schemes that you can celebrate. If you are a kinetic learner, get into a room, a karaoke bar, a live social media feed and DO the thing, be it monologue, song or scene. You learn by doing, so do, my friend! Lean into your learning power to further embed those lyrics in a useful context for your brain and body.

Now, we have looked into the psychology and building blocks of learning, flight and fight, and how to invite fear into the room. Here are some wee, practical things that have helped me which I use regularly in performing life.

  1. Last minute audition? No way will I take in a brand new song. Some people can. I am simply not one of them. I will bring in an appropriate song from my rep that is well ‘sung in’. This gives me mental peace.
  2. Recall? I will learn as much as I can. But I will always bring in my reference sheet music, and unapologetically so. Material in hand for recalls is accepted in the industry now. Gone are the day of expecting reams of Shakespeare with 2 days notice, a life and a day job on the side.
  3. Pinch yourself. No, literally do it! This is an odd trick an older actor passed down to me. If there is a particular moment you always trip up - be it in a monologue or a song, pinch yourself thumb and forefinger together using the nail the moment the words arrive. This wee technique comes from Sophrology, and basically, works with distraction and association to help you remember that specific lyric in the song! Odd one, but it works for me.
  4. Book yourself into a karaoke room. I hate being overheard when I’m practising. Hate it. Covid was a nightmare as I felt I could’t SING in my apartment. So, book an hour for yourself in a karaoke room. Don’t use domestic living as a excuse for not getting your practise in, and thus sabotaging your prep. Find a space when you can be loud, alone and sing my darlings! Sing!
  5. My professor once said to me ‘Hannah, it’s not brain surgery. You are singing and dancing’. This was not to undermine our very worthy profession, but to remind me that, if I forget my lyrics, no one will die. Life will go on. And that is a comforting thought.
Hannah Howie

Hannah Howie

Founder of Happy Voices, singer, vocal coach, and psychology graduate, dedicated to helping singers unlock their potential.

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