How to not suck at learning new music

It turns out that 1-4% of the population have synesthesia. Synesthesia is when one sense is linked to another, for example, if you see colour in music or letters.

People with synesthesia have amazing long-term memory. It’s easy to tamper with memory when you have direct access to the senses that control memory.

A while back, I noticed that one of my piano students never flipped the sheet music when she played.

At first, I thought she learned by touch. But then she struggled with fast runs and it didn’t matter how many times we deconstructed them when she hesitated a fraction.

We play a single bar a few different ways. She slaps her hand on the bench.

I say, “How do you know what to change if you never look at the music?”

She says. “I look at it before I play.” She pauses. “Or I give it a colour. For example, this is section is blue. I know what to play for blue.”

I ask her to change the colour of a section so it would become a brand new section. It takes a few seconds to recolour in her head.

The next week, the piece is smoother and the hesitations have disappeared.

Synesthesia is the only known way to enhance long-term memory. I see the string instruments hung on her wall and the harp sitting beside her piano. She plays exotic instruments that I don’t know how to pronounce.

It makes me think that we never see all the ways we are extraordinary because it comes so easily to us. We only know how special we are when we start to ask questions. We rely on these questions to learn about ourselves.

People used to think that the Marshmallow experiment uncovered who had the best self-control, and the kids with the best self-control would become the most successful in life. It turns out that people who truly get ahead are the ones who are able to ask themselves questions like, “why can’t I eat the marshmallow right now?

We’re not conditioned to ask questions to help us see the truth. In school, questions are discouraged because the teacher can’t field questions from every student. Learning to ask questions means asking bad questions until you hone in on what makes a good question, but it’s so annoying to hear bad questions that we’re just told to shut up.

In adulthood, people with poor social skills have trouble asking questions and getting help. I see this over and over in my own life. People who succeed at learning about the world around them are also successful at asking questions.

When we ask questions, we confront the possibility of hearing an unpleasant truth. It takes bravery to open ourselves and practice to keep listening. I have been asking questions my entire life before I came across the research showing that the strongest learners are the ones who ask questions.

That’s why, when I ask a bad question, I remind myself that I took a risk. It’s a risk worth taking if I want to start asking questions that change people.

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