How I Memorize Piano Music: Jocelyn Swigger at TEDxGettysburgCollege (Transcript)

Jocelyn Swigger

Jocelyn Swigger – Musical artist

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.

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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 worked that out, the tune gets stuck in my head, and that means that the aural memory is pretty much in place.

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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. 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!” 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?

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Audience: (Stomp, clap-clap rhythm)

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.

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