24:51
TED2004

Jennifer Lin: Improvising on piano, aged 14

Filmed:

Pianist and composer Jennifer Lin gives a magical performance, talks about the process of creativity and improvises a moving solo piece based on a random sequence of notes.

- Pianist, composer
Concert pianist and composer Jennifer Lin was only 14 when she performed at TED, drawing tears with her extraordinary improvisation. Full bio

(Applause)
04:40
Thank you.
04:58
Thank you very much.
05:03
Like the speaker before me, I am -- that's the TED virgin, I guess --
05:06
I'm also the first time here, and I don't know what to say.
05:11
(Applause)
05:17
I'm really happy that Mr. Anderson invited me.
05:19
I'm really grateful that I get a chance to play for everyone.
05:23
And the song that I just played was by Józef Hofmann.
05:26
It's called "Kaleidoscope."
05:29
And Hofmann is a Polish pianist and composer of the late 19th century,
05:31
and he's widely considered one of the greatest pianists of all time.
05:37
I have another piece that I'd like to play for you.
05:42
It's called "Abegg Variations," by Robert Schumann,
05:44
a German 19th century composer.
05:48
The name "Abegg" -- "Abegg" is actually A-B-E-G-G,
05:52
and that's the main theme in the melody.
05:57
That comes from the last name of one of Schumann's female friends.
06:03
(Laughter)
06:08
But he wrote that for his wife.
06:09
(Laughter)
06:11
So, actually, if you listen carefully,
06:15
there's supposed to be five variations on this Abegg theme.
06:17
It's written around 1834, so, even though it's old,
06:20
I hope you like it. (Music)
06:25
(Applause)
13:22
Now comes the part that I hate.
13:28
Well, because Mr. Anderson told me
13:33
that this session is called "Sync and Flow," I was wondering,
13:37
"What do I know that these geniuses don't?"
13:40
So, I'll talk about musical composition,
13:43
even though I don't know where to start.
13:46
How do I compose?
13:49
I think Yamaha does a really good job of teaching us how to compose.
13:51
What I do first is, I make a lot of little musical ideas --
13:55
you can just improvise here at the piano --
13:59
and I choose one of those to become my main theme, my main melody,
14:01
like the Abegg that you just heard.
14:04
And once I choose my main theme I have to decide,
14:07
out of all the styles in music, what kind of style do I want?
14:10
And this year I composed a Romantic style.
14:14
So, for inspiration I listened to Liszt and Tchaikovsky
14:17
and all the great Romantic composers.
14:21
Next, I make the structure of the entire piece with my teachers.
14:23
They help me plan out the whole piece,
14:29
and then the hard part is filling it in with musical ideas,
14:31
because then you have to think. (Laughter)
14:35
And then, when the piece takes somewhat of a solified form --
14:38
solidified, excuse me -- solidified form,
14:42
you're supposed to actually polish the piece, polish the details,
14:44
and then polish the overall performance of the composition.
14:49
And another thing that I enjoy doing is drawing --
14:53
drawing, because I like to draw, you know, Japanese anime art.
14:56
I think that's a craze among teens right now.
15:00
And once I realized it,
15:02
there's a parallel between creating music and creating art,
15:05
because for your motive or your little initial idea for your drawing,
15:09
it's your character -- you want to decide who do you want to draw,
15:13
or if you want to draw an original character.
15:17
And then you want to decide, how are you going to draw the character?
15:19
Like, am I going to use one page?
15:22
Am I going to draw it on the computer?
15:24
Am I going to use a two-page spread like a comic book
15:25
for more grandiose effect, I guess?
15:29
And then you have to do the initial sketch of the character,
15:32
which is like your structure of a piece,
15:35
and then you add pen and pencil and whatever details that you need --
15:37
that's polishing the drawing.
15:41
And another thing that both of these have in common
15:43
is your state of mind, because I don't --
15:45
I'm one of those teenagers that are really easily distracted,
15:48
so if I'm trying to do homework, (Laughter)
15:51
if I'm trying to do homework and I don't feel like it,
15:54
I'll try to draw or, you know, waste my time.
15:56
And then what happens is, sometimes I absolutely can't draw
15:59
or I can't compose at all, and then it's like
16:02
there's too much on your mind.
16:05
You can't focus on what you're supposed to do.
16:06
And sometimes, if you manage to use your time wisely and work on it,
16:09
you'll get something out of it, but it doesn't come naturally.
16:14
What happens is, if something magical happens,
16:18
if something natural happens to you,
16:20
you're able to produce all this beautiful stuff instantly,
16:23
and then that's what I consider "flow,"
16:26
because that's when everything clicks and you're able to do anything.
16:29
You feel like you're on top of your game
16:33
and you can do anything you want.
16:35
I'm not going to play my own composition today because,
16:37
although I did finish it, it's way too long.
16:40
Instead, I'd like to try something called "improvisation."
16:43
I have here seven note cards,
16:47
one with each note of the musical alphabet,
16:49
and I'd like someone to come up here and choose five --
16:52
anyone to come up here and choose five --
16:56
and then I can make it into some sort of melody and I'll improvise it.
16:58
Wow, a volunteer, yay!
17:03
(Applause)
17:07
Nice to meet you.
17:11
Goldie Hawn: Thank you. Choose five?
17:13
Jennifer Lin: Yes, five cards. Any five cards.
17:17
GH: OK. One. Two. Three.
17:19
Oh, D and F -- too familiar.
17:24
(Laughter)
17:29
JL: One more.
17:34
GH: OK, E for effort.
17:35
JL: Would you mind reading them out in the order that you chose them?
17:37
GH: OK. C, G, B, A and E.
17:40
JL: Thank you very much.
17:47
GH: You're welcome. And what about these?
17:48
JL: I won't use them. Thank you.
17:50
(Applause)
17:53
Now, she chose C, G, B, A, E.
18:00
I'm going to try to put that in some sort of order. (Plays notes)
18:04
OK, that's nice.
18:12
So, I'm going to have a moment to think,
18:14
and I'll try to make something out of it. (Music)
18:16
(Applause)
21:54
The next song, or the encore, that I'm going to play
21:59
is called "Bumble Boogie," by Jack Fina.
22:02
(Applause)
22:06
(Applause)
24:05

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About the Speaker:

Jennifer Lin - Pianist, composer
Concert pianist and composer Jennifer Lin was only 14 when she performed at TED, drawing tears with her extraordinary improvisation.

Why you should listen

A student of the Yamaha Music Education System from the age of 4, pianist Jennifer Lin has an unusual talent for improvisation. Speaking at TED, she compared her creative process to drawing a comic, and admitted that the state of "flow" -- when she is able produce beautiful music instantly -- cannot be forced.

Her virtuoso performances, particularly the improvisations, are profoundly moving, and -- even via podcast -- have been known to reduce listeners to tears. As one blogger recorded, "I was listening to a presentation by a 14-year old girl named Jennifer Lin who plays the piano like whoa ... I wasn't expecting it, and when she was a minute or two into the piece, I was literally crying in the crowded subway car." Lin was featured on ABC World News Tonight as Person of the Week and also appeared on a "Little Geniuses" segment on Oprah, where Winfrey declared her "a miracle prodigy."

More profile about the speaker
Jennifer Lin | Speaker | TED.com