It’s terrifying and demoralizing, but almost all performers have been there: You’re performing a solo live, something you’ve sung so many times you could do it backward in your sleep. But all of a sudden, the performance moment arrives, the spotlight is blaring down on you like a maniacal sun, an audience full of judgmental people is staring in your direction, and the worst happens. You can’t remember how your song goes. What do you do if you forget the words to your song?
1. Don’t Panic!
The most important thing to do is not to panic. The more you panic, the harder the situation will be to handle, so the best thing you can do is take deep, low breaths to help keep your sympathetic nervous system from getting out of control. What’s the very worst that could happen? It may seem like the end of the world, but it isn’t. Even if you never remember the words in this performance, the audience will forgive you, and you’ll move onto better performances in the future. From Christina Aguilera’s Super Bowl mishap to Demi Lovato’s mixup on Good Morning America, most of the greats have been there. Here’s proof that you can mess up the lyrics in a big way and still have a wonderful career afterward.
2. Continue to Look Confident
The very best thing you can do to salvage the performance is to continue to act confident. Don’t make a horrified face or start laughing nervously. If you need to hum a little bit, just do it with confidence and composure.
3. Try To Remember Some Part of the Song.
If you’re in the middle of the first verse, and you can’t remember the rest of it, see if you can remember the lyrics to the second or third verse. If you look confident enough, a good portion of the audience won’t notice the difference.
4. Make Up the Words!
Believe it or not, I’ve had to do this. It was a song I had performed as a solo about 300 times. But the venue was larger, and I just panicked and forgot the entire thing! I’m not joking. I just made up lyrics as I went along. Some people didn’t even notice, and most of the comments I got from people who did notice reflected admiration that I was able to keep going like that. It kind of felt like the end of the world while it was happening, but the world, and my music career, moved on.
5. Look Over the Accompanist’s Shoulder.
If you’re lucky enough to be singing with an accompanist who has the sheet music in front of her, take advantage of that! Stroll over to her while humming confidently, and peak at the lyrics. You probably won’t need to see much to jog your memory.
6. Talk to the Audience.
If the setting is casual enough, you can sometimes get away with this. It’s usually very disarming for an audience to be addressed by the performer. You can ask them how their evening is going or even make a self-deprecating remark about performance anxiety, as long as you do it with humor and grace. This could work especially well if you have a talented accompanist who can improvise until you come back in. If you’re singing to a track, come back in when you can find your place, maybe a chorus.
7. End the Song Early.
If you’ve gotten through enough of the song that it wouldn’t sound crazy to end it, just finish up. If you make a lyric sound final enough, you might sell it.
8. If All Else Fails, Start Over!
It’s not that big a deal! If there’s no way you can recover, just stop the accompanist or ask for the track to be stopped, and start over. If you make a well-placed joke about it to the audience, they’ll forgive you for anything. Of course, if you’re in the middle of the tragic number in a musical or opera, this one isn’t your best option.