Jeremy Denk may be one of the top concert pianists of his generation, but his warm, warts-and-all memoir Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, in Music Lessons should appeal not only to anyone who’s taken music lessons, but to anyone who’s striven for excellence in a creative field.
Recounting the perils and triumphs of his long musical education, he offers a rare behind-the-scenes look at how a musician develops into a virtuoso. The book also makes a valuable and unique contribution to today’s fragile popular understanding and appreciation of classical music. For Jeremy Denk has made himself more than a musician – he’s a musical statesman.
There have been great popularizers of classical music over the years. Leonard Bernstein comes to mind, and, in their own ways, José Iturbi, Beverly Sills, Andrea Bocelli and others. Denk is unique in that through his writing he has developed a distinctive, even poetic way of relating elements of classical music to universal aspects of the human spirit.
To this end he groups chapters by musical concept: harmony, melody, rhythm. He likens musical harmony to desire – one chord wants to go to another. Melody is both a noun and a verb, wanting to be fixed and memorable, yet needing to change. And rhythm is, paradoxically, a key to freeing your mind and body, whether it’s the wild heart-skips of Beethoven or the thumping backbeat of the popular dance music Denk despises.
Talking about the usual division of labor between a pianist’s left and right hands, for example, he discerns a deep equivalence with life and society:
For the pianist, this division of melody and harmony…becomes part of your body. The left hand tends to the harmony, and acts as the backup band, the mass; the right gets the good tunes and much of the credit. It’s not just that you’re executing two tasks at once, but two different impulses. One half, the soloistic individual; the other, the accompanying world. One half specific, discrete accomplishment; the other half, the common, discreet good.
Music is the hardest of all arts to describe in words. Denk has a rare skill of making it come vividly off the printed page, as when he describes the journey on which Bach’s titanic Well-Tempered Clavier takes both keyboardist and listener: “If we started driving at the Atlantic Ocean, now we face the Pacific – a colder ocean, with tremendous sunsets but also bewildering fog.”
Such well-considered flights of imagination help make his story a good yarn even if you don’t know much about classical music. And whether you do or not, it pays to frequently pause your reading, as I did, to listen to the pieces he talks about. (You’ll find all or most of them on your streaming service of choice, often in the specific performances he points to.) It’s enlightening and fun to listen for the musical moments he points out. It was also, for me, a great opportunity to discover wonderful music I hadn’t heard or appreciated before. (In an appendix he expands on why these particular works made his book’s “playlist.”)
But what really keeps the reader rolling on is the story of Denk’s musical studies, from boyhood piano lessons to college at Oberlin Conservatory and further education at Indiana and Juilliard. Entertaining character sketches make his teachers come to life in all their eccentricities. His deep appreciation for them is plain, especially for his primary mentor, György Sebők.
He doesn’t spare himself, either; his failures, frustrations, and misadventures make his tale all too human.
Artistic revelations that Denk considers important to his pianistic development dot the story. Sometimes these are triggered by a casual comment from a colleague, other times by a more profound lesson imparted by a thoughtful teacher. Cumulatively, these moments of growth, these bumps and turning points, reinforce the notion that an artist – or a practitioner of any creative endeavor – learns and grows throughout a career and a life. The book takes us behind the scenes, making it clear, for example, that when we witness a musician performing a brilliant concert that sounds like sublime perfection to us, they are likely struggling internally, second-guessing in real time, regretting some choices and reconsidering others.
Denk also slips in mentions of how he teaches his own students. His own guides and mentors no doubt also influenced him toward the pedagogical vocation he pursues alongside his concert career and his writing.
This is far from being a book for musicians only. Jeremy Denk’s vivid and remarkably detailed recollections will resonate with anyone who has striven for excellence in any field. In addition to being a celebrated concert artist, he is a noted writer, with articles on musical subjects published in The New Yorker, The Guardian, The New York Times Book Review and elsewhere. We should be thankful he studied writing as well as music; he recalls how one professor’s criticism of a college essay he wrote made him realize that “the real goal of study and practice” is to discover a “truth that was difficult to find, a hard-won reward…I didn’t know it yet, but in English class I got my most important music lesson.”
The skillfully told Every Good Boy Does Fine is a major new chapter in his corpus, and a significant contribution to the literature of musical artistry. It deserves a wide readership both inside and outside the world of music.