Denk the Writer

Janos Gereben on April 16, 2013
Jeremy Denk
Jeremy Denk, among vegetables

Last week's edition of The New Yorker featured a lengthy article by pianist Jeremy Denk about his experiences as a student, from childhood to conservatory and beyond.

Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Life in Piano Lessons is Denk's second contribution to the magazine; the first — about his experiences recording Ives' Concord Sonata — appeared last year. As readers of his website know, he writes with skill and clarity, free of pretensions. Pondering the harsh necessity of practice drills, Denk writes:

Exercises like this are crucial and yet apparently devised to destroy any natural enthusiasm for music, or possibly even for life ... It is as though you are scrubbing the grout in your bathroom and have been told that, if you remove every last particle of mildew, you will somehow be enabled to deliver the Gettysburg Address.

He places the hardship of practice drills in a larger context:

In popular culture, music lessons are often linked with psychological torment. People apparently love stories about performing-arts teachers who drive students mad, breaking their spirits with pitiless exactitude. There’s David Helfgott in Shine, Isabelle Huppert’s sadomasochistic turn in The Piano Teacher, the sneering Juilliard judges for whom Julia Stiles auditions to redeem her mother’s death in Save the Last Dance. (I can testify that the behavior of the judges at my real-life Juilliard audition was even meaner and funnier.)

I’ve often rolled my eyes at the music-lesson clichés of movies: the mind games and power plays, the teacher with the quaint European accent who says, "You will never make it, you are not a real musician," in order to get you to work even harder. But as the notebook recalled memories of lessons I’d had — both as a child and later, once the piano became my life — I wondered if my story was all that different...