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.

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?

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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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 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, 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#.

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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.

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