When it comes to performing in public, it’s certainly better to go out armed with a piece of paper or two than not perform at all. For the new bard, singing or speaking in front of people is intimidating enough, and anxiety does not improve a person’s ability to remember the words. However, the piece of paper can become a barrier between performer and audience. Paper is nothing but trouble in the dark, the rain or the wind, and the person who knows their stuff can bard whenever the opportunity arises, they don’t need their songbook…
How do you make the transition from sheet of paper to no sheet of paper? Many people assume they can just keep singing or reading from the sheet, and they will learn it that way, and then they won’t need the paper. Unhelpfully, it doesn’t work like that, and the longer you spend with the paper the more dependent on it you can feel.
The trick is to start working without the paper as soon as you can. Read it all through a few times, get familiar with it, and then put the paper down and start seeing what you can remember. You will spend chunks of time having to go ‘la la la I don’t know this bit but I do know the line that comes next’. That might seem like making a mess, but it isn’t, it’s a good way to learn. Try and work from memory. Every now and then, go back to the original and see what you’re missing, and look at what hasn’t stuck, and make mental note, and carry on.
One of the consequences of working this way is that you will ‘folk process’ the material. You’ll swap in words and turns of phrase that better suit your voice, dialect or speech style. Maybe you’ll modernise bits, or change the rhythm, or make other changes. This is actually a good thing. We aren’t in the business of doing faithful cover versions, we’re doing this to engage with a living tradition, and in a living tradition, things are allowed to grow and change. They have to. Over time, archaic language falls out of older songs, and new words sneak in. Some songs have multiple tunes, different lyrics – a consequence of things changing as they pass from one performer to another, or being deliberately updated.
If you’re working with your own material, the learning process can be a developing process, and you may find this works as a way of editing your creations.
What starts out as a mistake, can turn out to be a valuable innovation. It may be the thing that helps you make this piece your own.
Learning the material in this way makes it easier to adapt it for the moment. If you know the words in a more flexible way, you can change them if you need to – and for a bard, being able to slip in the odd contemporary reference or play to the audience is a good idea. Knowing the song, or the story can be a lot more about knowing the shape of it intimately, than being bogged down in exactly which words go where. Poetry can be a bit more rigid in requiring the same words, but if you look at Shakespeare, you’ll often find multiple versions of that, and the folk process at work there too. Alas Poor Yorick. Lead on MacDuff.