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

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

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.

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.

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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 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.

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