Building A Repertoire 2/2

Building A Repertoire 2/2

This is Part 2 (Part 1 here) of my answer to a question from a student when she scores her first live paying gig. This could apply to original material (but I imagine singer-songwriters to be able to play their songs without the help of charts/lyrics at least eventually), but largely to musicians who are also playing covers at various venues.

Once upon a time, I couldn’t perform without lyrics and charts in front of me. Two years ago, an agent-friend of mine made a quick comment, “oh you guys wouldn’t need the stands right, you never look at charts and lyrics…” and I realised in an instant that just a little fluke 5-6 years ago, gave me the courage to think differently today. The freedom i have today in performance comes from taking a risk I decided to take that day when I forgot to fetch the ipad to a wedding gig. Haha… I still remember the madness and distress. Another few more times, with my ipod dying on me, and I’m unto no charts as well. Now, i love it.

Musicians need to be good readers, but hey, live performers, you need to stop ripping yourself off the opportunities to really enjoy the music, and the gig! Give your ears and heart a chance too! Often in reading the lyrics, you just don’t feel the song in your heart. There’s no time to get there. So first advice build a repertoire you can remember by. Memorise is not the word. Remember in the heart of you. You’re not a machine. If you can’t ever feel for it, it will never stick.

Does it mean that you don’t have a repertoire if you can’t remember your lyrics/charts? Of course not, but a lot of that selection process will be so much more effective and meaningful when you actually seek to internalise the music. Besides, if you’re reading this article, it means you are probably performing live or intending to. If so, how can you speak to the audience if your face is covered by a big fat ipad, or worse, a laptop, in some cases i’ve seen. Why don’t they just hire a jukebox?

When you are learning a brand new tune, the process repeats over, and sometimes it takes a little longer when you have 5 tunes to work on at once, and it’s okay to have something in front of you, but make it a conscious decision to wean it off in time. If you’re a musician with a long arrangement to adhere to like Chick Corea, it may not be a choice at all to not look at sheet music, but practice running the ‘what’s next’ in your mind even as you’re reading. I have many classical musician-friends who practice hours for that reason.

If your lips are beginning to shake and your tongue now is reeling off buts and because-s, stop. It’s a choice you need to make. Take a risk, and jump, no lyrics for a song or two a day, and see what happens. Before that fluke of an incident, I was like you, I had excuses longer than the lyrics i had to remember in all my repertoire combined. Try it. There’s only one true-blue Dory. :)

The same goes for Charts. Learn to hear out for the bass-lines, the movement of chord structures, appreciate the changes, even for the tough ones like Beyond the Sea which i can still can’t get as seamlessly. The composers who wrote them, felt them, so hear them, feel them, appreciate them. Instrumentalists, in the words of my favourite jazz great, Clark Terry, know the lyrics even if you are just playing the head of a jazz standard. It will change the way you look at phrasing.

Now, the how-to:

1) by now you know the kind of music you play and your unique sound. Pick cover tunes of artistes you enjoy listening to that are slightly more popular and then grow that repertoire to the artistes that influence these artistes you like today. My friend Shimona, had a very humble history and I’m so proud of her. She knew just about 5-10 tunes on guitar and held her own at the Swing Bar before any of us recording singers even heard of a live gig in our teens. That repertoire grew and grew.

2) Analyse the chord charts if you play and sing for yourself. Hear out for the bass lines. Sing them if you can. Remember the changes. And play them without looking at the charts. And without the singing first.

3) Understand the lyrics. Understand the context in which it was written. Ask questions. Do you identify with it? If not, why? If yes, why? Use imagery to help you remember sections. Difficult chunks should be practised with reading first, especially if your weakness is in keeping time. Sometimes we forget that our tongue is a big fat organ with muscles and needs to be stretched and exercised. Read it over like you’re rapping it. Nail the accents and then put the melody to it. Sing it without your own playing.

4) Phrasing and Breathing Points. Most of my students know I am famous for putting breath marks to the original phrasing before even the reading/rapping. Phrasings are not a myth, and not the thing we talk about only when we don’t have anything else to talk about! They can make and break a singer, even a singer with an extraordinary instrument! On the other hand, if your instrument is not the most amazing/outstanding, your musical decisions can make your delivery an unforgettable one! Breath points are like counterspace on a white canvas. They can become the figure or the ground. Never belittle them. A painting covered with colours with no space, is little someone going blahblahblah.. Sometimes all you need to do, is Mean it. However, always sing the original phrasing without changing it until you are familiar with it.

5) Combine your playing and singing when you are ready. And make a video or an audio recording. I find this extremely useful. You are hearing yourself and these mistakes just don’t escape anyone. By the end of your 10th video, you’d have a good 10 tunes ready for performance under your belt.

6) Patience. The curve is exponential, so enjoy the process. The first drops of water, may only wet the soil, but the minute the environment is friendly and familiar, you’ll find the songs move up into branches as the nutrients and water do. Don’t kill the joy of learning. Make learning the goal.

Before you know it, 5 years and a little more, I have over 70-90 tunes under my belt, and maybe a good 30-40 charts in my head. Practice makes the better, and the better gets the better-er etcetc.! Started off as a recording artiste who knew nothing about live performance, and now performed in about 15 cities, building a good repertoire you can enjoy is something you can do too!

Have fun!

Juliet Pang is a singer-songwriter, jazz vocalist, and educator.