How I memorize piano music | Jocelyn Swigger | TEDxGettysburgCollege

Translator: Alice Spangaro
Reviewer: Queenie Lee Jocelyn Swigger: Let’s talk about
how you translate something like that into something like this. (Music: Chopin “Étude Op. 25,
No. 2, in F minor”) The two questions that I get asked
most often after I play a concert are “How do you make
your fingers move so fast?” and “How do you remember
all those notes?” There’s a short answer: lots and lots and lots and lots … … of practice. And after a hard day
practicing hard piano music, I actually really like to unwind
by listening to science. This is partly
because I’m really fascinated by the actual scientific discoveries, and I love podcasts,
[TEDx] Talks, chatting with friends. But I think it’s also because I really
relate to the process of finding those scientific
discoveries out. So, as I understand it, that process – that process includes slogging
through lots of short-term details for the sake of a long-term goal
that might not even be possible; experimenting to see what works
and what doesn’t work; analyzing complicated and often nonverbal
architectures of ideas; handling simultaneous
conflicting concepts at the same time; and then on a really, really good day, you get to discover creative,
fun, intuitive epiphanies. This sounds to me
just like practicing the piano. So just like science, practicing the piano has its fun,
creative, and intuitive moments, but most of what I’m doing
is analytical problem-solving and repetition. I have to figure out how to do something, and then I have to repeat it enough that I can trust that I’ll play it
the way I wanted to. So the first step
is parsing a nonverbal code, and I want to take just a minute to go through how to read music
very, very quickly. Every note on the keyboard
has its own spot on the staff, (Plays musical scale) and its own letter name: (Plays musical scale) A, B, C, D, E, F, G. The notes go up, (Plays) they go down, (Plays) and they stay the same. (Plays) We mark timed silence
with squiggles and squares. We read from left to right
just like reading English. Mostly the right hand plays the top line,
the left hand plays the bottom line, and stuff occupying the same vertical
happens at the same time. (Plays piano score) A beam makes things go twice as fast. (Plays piano score) And twice as fast. (Plays piano score) And twice as fast. (Plays piano score) So hopefully with that,
you can see that this is fairly easy. (Plays piano score) And this is a little more difficult, (Plays piano score) and this might kill you. (Laughter) (Plays piano score) So how do you memorize
something like that? Well, let’s look at the process. When I’m memorizing, learning music, I’m analytically problem-solving
from four different directions, and those are the four different kinds
of memory that I need: how something looks, how it sounds,
how it feels, and how it’s shaped. So first is visual memory. For me, the way the notes look
on the page is actually not that helpful. I don’t have a full-on
photographic memory, and I’m very jealous of those who do. So I can’t remember
all the little dots on the page, but actually, how my hands look
on the keyboard is a huge part of figuring out
how to do a jump like this. (Plays piano score part) So that visual moment is very important
in the learning process. Next is the aural memory, and this usually puts itself in place while I’m figuring out
how I want something to sound. So I have to make decisions like: Do I want to listen to the top part
of the right hand when I play this? (Plays, stressing on right-hand top part) Or do I want to listen
to the thumb of the right hand? (Plays, stressing on right thumb) By the time I’ve really work that out,
the tune gets stuck in my head, and that means that the aural memory
is pretty much in place. Next is the physical memory, and this is really where I have
to get into my analytical problem-solving, and I have a real incentive
to solve my problems and figure out how to do things, because if I don’t … Well, first of all, it can sound terrible
but it also can really hurt, a lot! So I want to try and figure out
how to do things. And this involves
a lot of problem-solving, and I want to show you
some of those problems. So when I do this left-hand pattern, if I try to stretch between my pinky
and my ring finger to play this, (Plays left hand) it sounds terrible,
and it’s really hard, and it hurts, and life is miserable
and I’d rather go watching Netflix. (Laughter) But it actually works if I use a position
that I call the one-eared llama, like, “Hello, I am a two-eared llama!”
“Hello, I am a one-eared llama!” (Laughter) because the distance between the ear
and the nose of the llama is an easier way to play this pattern. Sometimes I’m trying to teach one hand
how to do two things at once. In this one, the left hand is playing
just a little boom shot pattern. (Plays left hand) The bottom part of my right hand
is playing this simple little chord and then the top part of my right hand is playing this really evil,
difficult climb. (Plays right-hand chromatic scale) So I’m doing that
at the same time is this. (Plays full right hand) That’s only possible
if my thumb isn’t collapsed. So if my thumb is collapsed,
I can’t do it. But if I make sure that my thumb
is really supported – see, collapsed, supported – it becomes possible. And actually, it turns out
that Chopin’s hand has this beautifully
supported thumb joint, there. This is from a marble in Budapest. Sometimes I’m trying to teach
one hand to play one rhythm and the other hand to play another. Can I have everybody please –
we’ll do some audience participation – could you all please do:
stomp, clap-clap, and keep that going? Audience: (Stomp, clap-clap rhythm)
JS: Great! Keep going! (Accompanies stomp, clap-clap rhythm) Thank you! So now could you please do:
stomp-clap, stomp-clap, Ready? And go! Audience: (Stomp-clap, stomp-clap rhythm) (Accompanies stomp-clap rhythm) Great! So now stomp and then clap
really, really quietly and decide if you want to do
two or three at the same time. So stomp, stomp, stomp, stomp,
stomp, stomp, listen to both. (Accompanies rhythm) Thank you! So I’m doing
both of those at the same time. Sometimes I have to think about two and three at the same time
in a different way. So this rhythmic gesture
is in groups of three. (Plays music score) Can you hear that? (Plays)
That’s one-two-three, one-two-three … But the actual physical gesture
is in two-note groups. It’s going (Plays) up and up
and up and up and up and up. So when I play something like this, I’m sort of experiencing
two and three at the same time. (Plays piano score) So by the time I’ve got all that in place,
the muscle memory is there. But muscle memory is a fickle friend because your body
doesn’t always feel the same. Especially when you feel nervous
your body feels totally different, we already heard about that today. So you have to have a backup system, and this is where we come to
how it’s shaped: the analytical memory. So what I have to do when I’m dealing
with my analytical memory is I have to find patterns, I have to understand the grammar,
and I have to chunk my information. So let me show you how this works. If I were to tell all of you
that on Monday you’re going to be required
to stand up on this stage and recite from memory
this sequence of letters, I think you’ll feel
like I ruined your weekend. But maybe if you’re game
and you decide to do it, so you might look to see
if anything jumps out at you. And maybe if you’re a Scrabble player
you might see that WXIJ, and you might say,
“Oh, look, that happens twice!” Then you might look at what happens
right before it and right after it, and you might see that there’s actually
a string that repeats itself. When something happens twice
you only have to learn it once. So now we have less information
we have to deal with, but you’re still kind of depressed
about this task, I think. But you might go back in
and look for patterns. And you might see, well, TU –
that’s an alphabetical order pair. OK. WX, that’s an alphabetical order pair,
and they’re all alphabetical order pairs. Maybe that’s interesting. So then at this point, you might
start moving them around to see if you can find
some kind of pattern that makes some kind of sense out of this. Well, if you look at the red letters you’re probably not going to feel
like you’ve really gotten very far. But if you look at the black letters you might start seeing some sort
of pattern that might be helpful, if you go down (Laughter)
like in the first line. Then we might actually put this in order, and then if we put back in
the thing we took out, maybe this pattern doesn’t seem
quite as daunting. This is the kind of thing
that I have to deal with when I’m trying to figure this out. So, if I play something like this, (Plays piano score) that’s a lot of notes. But it happens that the stuff
in the blue boxes … (Plays notes inside blue boxes)
… is the same, just a little higher. And if I collapse them all down
to their closest position, I can really think
of all of those as being this chord, and I have a name for it,
which is C major. So I’m thinking
of one piece of information instead of all of those pieces
of information. Sometimes there’s a little
more noise thrown in. Here, this is a Chopin
nicknamed “Wrong Note” étude (Plays piano score) So he kind of wrote in these wrong notes that then resolved to the right notes. And if you try to memorize
the information of the wrong notes, that’s really hard to figure out, just like our alphabetical ordered pairs
and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. But if you accept that the wrong notes are just kind of these mean
downstairs neighbors and you think about this … … this I can actually think of
as being one chord, (Plays chord) which is E minor. So I can think of it that way. So then, what do you do
when you see something like this? Well, first you cry, (Laughter) and then you start looking for patterns. So you might see that it goes (Plays piano score)
in and out and in and out and in and out and in and out. So let’s look at
that very first little in-out pair. (Plays piano score) So the top notes of the right hand
are B, F, D, G#, and it so happens that those are also
the top notes of the left hand. (Plays) B, F, D, G#. The bottom notes of the right hand
are also the same as the bottom notes of the left hand, and actually, just this, (Plays) those notes together
are B, F, D, G#. (Plays) So actually, we can think about
all of this as being this chord, (Plays as chord) which is easier to think about than this. (Plays in-out pattern) So I won’t walk you through all of this, but the next red box
is exactly the same thing, (Plays chord) a step lower, and then it changes and changes
and changes. (Plays chords) So instead of thinking about
all of this information, (Plays in-out pattern) I can think about …
(Plays sequence of single notes) which is much easier
for my poor brain to handle. So, what I just showed you is between the first blue arrow
and the second blue arrow. I won’t walk you through it, but trust me that between
the second and third blue arrow is the same thing a step down, and then at the third blue arrow,
it’s the same thing as step down again. So it’s very much worth my while to be good at starting
at the first blue arrow, and also good at starting
at the second blue arrow, and also good at starting
at the third blue arrow. So that if panic strikes, or something happens
in between two arrows, I can jump to the next place,
so that’s building myself a safety net. So once I’ve chunked my information, then I’m ready to think about
the larger structure. And it so happens that a lot
of classical music is an A-B-A form. It’s just shaped like a sandwich. You have a thing
and then a different thing and then a thing
that’s similar to the first thing. Once I have like overall structure,
I make a theory map. I actually write out all the chords;
I make my students do this too. And then once I have my theory map,
I have to memorize the map, and one way that I do this
is by playing the music while saying the name of the chord. So I might do something like A minor,
D minor, A minor, (Plays piano score) E7 … A … E. And if I want to emphasize the chords’ or the harmonies’
relationships to each other, rather than their individual identities,
I can throw numbers at them. So I can say: 1, 4, 1, (Plays piano score) 5, 1, 5 … … 1. So by the time I figured out
how to do that, all four of my memories are in place – how it looks, how it sounds,
how it feels, and how it’s shaped. And here’s the really cool thing: when I say that the memory
is in an actual place, it’s an actual place! With every repetition that I have to do,
my brain is building myelin, which is the unbelievable protein that wraps itself around neural pathways
and makes them go faster. So I’ll leave you with a quotation from somebody who had a lot
of musical myelin and a question. Einstein said, “If I were not a physicist,
I would probably be a musician. I think in music.
I live my daydreams in music. Our next generation of scientists
has a lot of problems to solve. Here’s my question. What kind of discoveries might
they come up with if we make sure that they know how to think in music?” Thank you. (Applause)