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Newsletter #30: The Musical Memory of Maria João Pires

Recently, a friend and I discussed the prodigious memories of certain musical performers in contrast to our comparatively deficient recall. It’s just one of many characteristics that separate extraordinary musicians from ordinary ones.

The celebrated pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, for instance, memorized the complete piano works of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms as a child. He has retained those memories well into adulthood. You can watch him being “quizzed” on his memory in an old 60 Minutes interview by reporter Bob Simon (he passes the test with flying colors).

“Memory,” says Barenboim, “is a muscle. It must be trained.”

If that’s the case, another pianist, Maria João Pires also put in the necessary “reps” when it comes to exercising her memory muscle.

At a lunchtime concert to a full audience in 1998 (which served as a dress-rehearsal for an evening performance), Pires was confronted with a musician’s worst nightmare: she had mistakenly prepared the wrong piece.

Pires arrived expecting to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C Major, K.467. Unfortunately, the mix-up wasn’t made clear until she was seated onstage and the performance had begun.

As soon as the orchestra launched into an entirely different piece, Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D Minor, K.466, Pires realized that something had gone horribly wrong.

This unusual event was captured on film. A documentary film crew was on hand and filmed the incident. You can watch the situation unfold in this short YouTube video.

The initial moments are hard to watch. Pires is visibly distraught. The first piano entrance comes roughly two minutes and thirty seconds after the first bar of music. She has a brief window of time to consider her limited range of options. What should she do? Can she recover? Does she ask conductor Richard Chailly the unthinkable and have him bring the music to an awkward and premature halt?

Amazingly, she opts for a surprising alternative: she decides to play the concerto from memory. This is no trifle. Accounting for all three movements, Pires will need to perform more than a half-hour of challenging music in front of a live audience without proper preparation. Even if she’s played the piece before and kept it in her repertory (which she has), any performer can tell you this is no small feat.

I shy away from absolutes, but I can say with 100% certainty that I would have slunk off the stage in abject humiliation and run far, far away from that concert hall never to be seen again.

But professionals, like Pires, are different. She’s put in the reps. She is resilient. She’s extraordinary and rises to the challenge. Confidence, skill, poise, and an unfailing memory—I can only express awe and admiration.

Now onto the updates…

What’s New on the Blog:

Book Notes: “On Grand Strategy” by John Lewis Gaddis

The book is a challenging meditation and wide-ranging history on the art of leadership and decision-making. Strategy, put simply, is the path to achieving a given objective in the face of limited means and constraints. When the stakes are particularly high—as in the case of war, politics and diplomacy—the adjective “grand” is applied. As Gaddis notes, strategy carries an inherent conflict: ends exist in the imagination and are infinite (i.e., one can set any number of arbitrary goals), but means (i.e., capabilities, resources, skills) are finite. “Ends and means have to connect if anything is to happen” is the book’s leitmotif. This is the simple, frequently overlooked truth behind any successful strategy.

It’s a worthwhile, if meandering, read and one big reason why I’ve been thinking so much about foxes and hedgehogs (see Issue #29).

What I’m reading next: I’m still on the strategy kick and re-reading Richard P. Rumelt’s Good Strategy/Bad Strategy (2011).


  • Against Netflix: “Too many great minds spend their time watching TV rather than thinking and inventing and creating.” Perhaps too preachy, but the question of how much creativity we are deprived of is an interesting one.
  • How to Spot a Liar: Research suggests that behavioral profiling and nonverbal cues as a basis for guilt is fundamentally misguided pseudoscience.
  • Men Clamming Up: The Female Founder Secrets blog considers a serious problem: “Silicon Valley has always run on candor, but it’s being stifled at the moment, and no one is noticing that we are the collateral damage.”
  • On Getting Poetry: “Like many adult pleasures, poetry is an acquired taste. We don’t grow up surrounded by it, the way we do pop music and movies, whose conventions become second nature.”
  • The U.S. Is Real Close to Screwing up EV Charging: Automakers are quietly developing their own proprietary charging networks for electric vehicles. The result might be a fractured landscape of non-interoperable fueling stations meant to bolster the competitive advantage of whoever has the best network.
  • Who Do I Want to Be?: Clayton Dorge’s letter to a friend graduating from college is, quite frankly, great advice for anyone at any stage in the journey of life.
  • Why I’m a Sucker for Pen and Paper: Steve Morin explains why he’s #teamhandwriting when it comes to committing notes to memory and for active thinking.
  • Why I’m Unreachable and You Should Be Too: Peter Levels runs the numbers on time-scarcity and decides to align his energy with what he cares about most. Reminds me of the sci-fi author Neal Stephenson’s famous post, Why I am a Bad Correspondent (answer: because he’s busy writing award-winning novels).


  • The Ezra Klein Show: Ted Chiang: Klein interviews the Nebula and Hugo award-winning author of Story of Your Life and Exhalation. The conversation explores interesting ideas like the anti-egalitarianism of superhero stories, free-will and determinism, and suffering and machine consciousness.
  • This Is Love: Among the Oak Trees: If you can only listen to one podcast this week, listen to this one. It’s the story of Ruth Coker Burks, a young single mom in Hot Springs, Arkansas whose curiosity and empathy led her to care for men dying of AIDS in the late 1980s when all others had abandoned them.
  • What’s Essential: Jay Papasan on the First Thing: The authors of Essentialism and The One Thing have a conversation about intentional living, prioritization, and productivity.

Odds & Ends:

  • U.S. Church Membership Falls below Majority for First Time. Gallup polls have tracked U.S. church membership and religious attitudes since 1937. For the first time in the poll’s history, self-declared church membership has dipped to 47%. Gen X and Millenials, in particular, have shown the most significant shift away from religious affiliation. Aggregate trends for specific poll questions can be found on this page. It’s worth noting that church attendance is not the same as belief in a higher power (there is still a strong majority of belief in the latter according to the Gallup data).
  • The Soul Guards of Ghengis Khan: Fascinating. “For nearly 800 years, the Darkhad have claimed to be the official guardians of the soul of Genghis Khan. But controversy abounds.”
  • The War Without End: Mac vs. PC: Steve Jobs’ former advertising copywriter offers an enjoyable 40 year retrospective on a legendary advertising and marketing battle.
  • Every Noise at Once provides an algorithmically generated map of over 5000 musical genres. You click on an individual genre to listen to an audio sample. I had no idea what “carnatic vocal,” “vegan straight edge,” or “hakkapop” were, but I’ve sampled all three and many more. This is a fantastic resource and wonderful rabbit hole to explore if you love music. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

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