My vocal students are having a recital tomorrow night, so for the last couple weeks we've been polishing their music and talking about performance etiquette. One of the things I have tried and tried to drive home to them is that when they forget the words, or sing the wrong words, they need to just pretend that that is exactly how the music was written and nothing out of the ordinary happened. Because, let's face it: unless someone in the audience has either performed the song before or happens to listen to it every night before he goes to bed, people are just not going to notice that a mistake occured.
Needless to say, most of them aren't very good at it. I know it's hard, especially since text memorization is nearly impossible for me. I have certainly had my share of lyric gaffes in my life as a performer, and I didn't always know how to graciously pretend that I totally meant to say the absurd thing you just heard.
Of course, this is slightly easier when singing in a foreign language. At my senior recital I sang a German lied that was like, two hours long. At least it sure seemed that way. It had five very long verses, all sung to the same melody with a slight variation on the final verse. I got hopelessly and completely lost during the performance and made up German like crazy. I'm sure nobody noticed. I also got a bit confused with the lyrics on one of my English songs. I ended up singing the same text twice in a row and caught myself from going to the bridge too early just in the nick of time. Yes, I am the unarguable queen of lyric mishaps.
I remember being in studio class one night in college. As is the procedure, one of the class members was singing for the rest of the students, in order to be critiqued later by the professor. The selection she was performing was "Amarilli, mia Bella," an Italian aria that every vocal major will learn at some point in his or her college career, if they didn't already learn it while in high school. This meant that at least half of us were very familiar with the music and lyrics she was singing.
She got to the part where the lyrics say, "E vedrai scrito in core" and forgot the words. She kept the straightest of faces and instead said, "Pe-eh-pto bi-ih-ismol." I couldn't stop laughing. Neither could several of my classmates. There were, however, a good portion of students who either weren't familiar with the piece (yet), or simply weren't paying attention to her performance. They couldn't figure out why the rest of the class (professor included) was giggling uncontrollably.
I was so impressed with her ability to maintain a poker face and keep right on going, even when the audience was snickering, that I vowed right then and there to never let on when I sang the wrong lyrics, or messed up in any other way. I've done pretty well, too. Case in point: the other night while singing my solo in the choir concert I sang these words:
"Shepherds naked, cold and bare."
I just kept singing, and not one person in the audience that I could see even so much as cracked a smile. Nor did a single fellow choir member mention the mistake. I'm guessing that my huge alteration of the nativity scene didn't register on anyone's radar because they were so mesmerized by the beauty of my voice. I mean, that's the only explanation.
Because it couldn't possibly be that most people don't even pay attention to the lyrics.