In The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), Dr. Seuss’s only original screenplay, young Bart, living alone with his harassed mom, is compelled to endure piano lessons from the local music teacher, fussy, tyrannical Dr. Terwilliker. Exhausted by his fruitless labors, Bart falls asleep at the piano and dreams that he has been sent, along with 499 other boys, to a pianistic penal colony ruled over by Dr. T. A single huge keyboard is at the center of the colony; the children miserably take their places at it and begin to play.
This, broadly speaking, is most people’s view of piano lessons. Not mine, as it happens, the only child in the United Kingdom who begged his mother for piano lessons and was refused them; and not that of the American pianist Jeremy Denk, who was in continuous music education from the age of six to thirty-one, under the tutelage of a remarkable succession of teachers, almost all of whom had something valuable to contribute to his evolving understanding of both the complex and many-faceted instrument to which he has devoted his life and the complex and many-faceted person that he is.
Some forty years ago, as a very young actor, I wrote a book called Being an Actor, which attempted to describe what it’s like to be an actor. Denk, at the age of fifty-one, has written a book that shows what it’s like to be a pianist, but also what it’s like to be Jeremy Denk. As if that were not enough, it is also about the elements of music, and beyond that an account of the ways in which music and life mirror each other. It is a book like none other—certainly none by pianists, many of whom have written their memoirs, notably Arthur Rubinstein’s glamorous My Young Years and My Many Years and Oscar Levant’s three outrageously funny volumes, A Smattering of Ignorance, The Memoirs of an Amnesiac, and The Unimportance of Being Oscar. There are also practical books, like Boris Berman’s lucid Notes from the Pianist’s Bench and Piano Notes by the polymathic Charles Rosen, who vividly describes the physical and mental challenges of being a pianist. None of these books, however, comes close to the scope of Every Good Boy Does Fine.
Denk’s recorded catalog—some twenty albums—includes a number of outstanding releases, among them c. 1300–c. 2000, a sequence of transpositions and individual movements from larger pieces ranging from Guillaume de Machaut to Ligeti, taking in Byrd, Beethoven, Brahms, Schoenberg, Stockhausen, and Stravinsky. He plays a great deal of Bach and has been a passionate advocate of twentieth- and twenty-first-century American composers—Ives, Kirchner, Dello Joio, and Picker, among others; his most recent recording, of two Mozart piano concertos and the Rondo in A Minor, has been received as something of a revelation.
He is a writer of witty, challenging, and highly personal pieces for The New Yorker and The New Republic; he contributed a radical and profound reassessment of Charles Ives to these pages.* Perhaps his most characteristic writing is to be found in his punningly named blog, Think Denk—“the glamorous life and thoughts of a concert pianist,” wickedly playful and shot through with shafts of profundity and self-revelation. He has also achieved the seemingly impossible task of turning Rosen’s book The Classical Style into a libretto, with gabby characters like Tonic, Dominant, and—a late and anxious arrival—Subdominant, who assemble in a downtown bar under the jaundiced gazes of Rosen, Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart. It is this combination of musical exploration, verbal communicativeness, and pianistic excellence that led to Denk’s being awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2013.
Every Good Boy Does Fine—the phrase is one of the first things a piano student learns, a mnemonic (of which there are many variants, not all of them printable) for the notes of the treble clef—is wildly ambitious, far exceeding the author’s modest description of it as “the story of piano lessons.” It is that, certainly, among many other things, having its origins in Denk’s 2013 New Yorker essay about his teachers.
The book is laid out in musical form: three substantial sections on harmony, melody, and rhythm, all framed by a prelude and a coda. The prelude immediately introduces one of the central questions of the book: how to write about music without recourse to technical analysis. At the start, Denk does this through his twelve-year-old ears, the age at which he bought a cassette tape of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra:
Ah, yes, Mozart. The music was lovely, fine, elegant: just what I expected. As you will discover, I was the kind of kid who thought he’d already figured out Mozart but could barely tie his shoelaces. A couple minutes in, something odd happened: a few buzzing trills. Possibly nothing, a side idea branching off the piece’s tree, climbing a few notes. But then there were a few more. I was sure they must be done now—but then, again, there were more, louder, higher. Had Mozart lost his mind?
Young Denk is increasingly dumbfounded by the music’s journey. Thirty-eight years later, he hears the same cassette again; again he is knocked sideways. He tries to analyze his way out of the emotion, to understand how Mozart achieves his effects:
And it hit me. This passage was the perfect metaphor for the very thing I was writing, the story of piano lessons: obsessive repetition, climbing toward an unknown goal that rewrites itself, once achieved. The truest realizations aren’t at the peak, but are discovered almost by surprise, and through release, by passing back down the old, same steps. If you forced me to sum it up, I’d tell you that is the point of this book: a love for the steps, the joys of growing and outgrowing and being outgrown.
And that, indeed, is what he describes in the book—one of the things, because from that point on it will be layered like a cake, the layers (pianistic, personal, philosophical) alternating and sometimes combining.
“But first, I’m afraid,” he tells us, “we have to talk about my parents.” This he does, sharply delineating all their complexities: both on their second marriages, his father, after the death of his first wife, having retreated to a monastery until he came to believe that it was just a form of escapism; his mother deserted by her first husband and left with three children to bring up. They have two more, Jeremy and his younger brother. His father is permanently restless and unfulfilled, his mother increasingly addicted to alcohol and physically disabled. They move house frequently; they fight constantly; his father has an affair. But once the precocious Jeremy has chosen to take piano lessons, the one thing they agree on—even though they can barely afford to pay for them and his relentless practicing drives them mad—is that he must commit himself to them. They are far from the classic pushy parents, but they keep him at it. The question that runs through the book is: Will he ever earn their approval?
These sections are full of pain, confusion, disappointment, betrayal. When his parents retire to an assisted-living facility, they both write their memoirs, a rich resource on which Denk draws, along with other carefully preserved records of his past—scribbled-on childhood scores, report cards, favorite images—which he reproduces in the book. He has, moreover, seemingly total recall of crucial conversations, places, smells, and colors. And throughout, life is described in musical terms. He comments on his mother:
A pair of vanishings: her father from a heart attack, her husband from a different failing of the heart. In music, the return of a theme is often a comfort or delight, but in real life not so much.
Describing his father’s contradictory instincts as a humorist—he cracks a joke, then frowns, as if to discourage laughter—Denk observes, “We all felt we had to laugh, but he kept at the frown, sustaining it like a pedal tone in music, insisting on the truth behind the punch line.”
His piano teachers, each formative, each fiercely resolute, make up the central layer of the book, a procession of determined educators who shape his development, starting with homely Mona Schneiderman—“Has a more perfect piano teacher name ever been invented?”—who has him play a simple tune over which cheery lyrics are inscribed:
I’m so happy, I’m so happy,
For the world is full of things,
Birds and flowers and sunny hours,
My heart just sings and sings!
He moves on to Lillian, an altogether tougher cookie, in the Dr. Terwilliker mold:
Once I brought in the “Moonlight Sonata,” because what could be better than that? Lillian launched into a tirade: the edition I was using was bad, and I had no business playing music like that yet, I had to be serious and respectful. I thought about how beautiful the piece was, as tears streamed down my face.
In the text, he reproduces his score of one of Clementi’s easy sonatinas, annotated by Lillian and himself to such a degree that the music is almost invisible. Lillian later remembers how fond he was of her dog, who was always present at lessons. Denk punctures her golden reminiscence: he was clinging to the animal for dear life while he waited for his parents to pick him up: “I always felt as if I’d barely survived.” At times he feels as if the purpose of classes is to kill any pleasure he might have in music.
His parents—who had bought him a secondhand Behning piano for $1,000, a huge expenditure for them—enrolled him in an advanced school program that had its own dedicated therapist: “I liked him more than any adult I’d ever met. He wasn’t as judgmental as my parents, or my piano teacher. He also didn’t seem worried.” But young Jeremy is now deeply unhappy and refuses to practice. His parents threaten to end the lessons, which forces him to a life-changing realization:
They did this out of love, I assume, but it boggled my mind—how could they be so cruel? I dreaded my lessons, but I never wanted them to stop. This piano now seemed inseparable from me, immovable as the Behning on its blocks. I wasn’t sure how this had happened. Part of it was my love for music, whatever that means, but part of it was less selfless—piano was the only way I’d found to express myself, a shelter and a persona.
There is no going back once he’s acknowledged that to himself. He’s eleven and has been at it for half his lifetime; a lifetime of lessons and practice, punctuated with occasional performances, stretches ahead of him, with a multiplicity of teachers, each with bafflingly different views of how to play the piano.
The Denks move to New Mexico and Jeremy is accepted by a much more congenial teacher, Bill Leland, who inscribes his scores with useful phrases, in capitals, such as A SMOOTH THUMB CONNECTION IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT TECHNICAL FEATS YOU CAN MASTER!
I wondered Will I ever be done with the thumb? The answer was No, never. The thumb is a transit system, helping to lubricate scales, arpeggios, passages of all kinds. It is at once an anchor and a springboard. It’s the finger that often forgets it’s a finger.
On another occasion, Leland writes on the score, “Mozart 3rd mvmt. practice the way we did together; listen for the mercurial changes of touch and phrasing (also dynamics!),” underlining “mercurial” with a squiggly line, for special emphasis.
Nearly forty years later, that’s one of the ideas I cherish and teach most: that Mozart’s music is not one voice but a shifting array of voices; that you never know what the character of the next moment will be—serious or light or high or low or some shade in between. “Mercurial” is for me quite near the heart of Mozart’s great gift to us; it is also one of the most common words people use nowadays to describe my playing. One teacher’s comment, even one you’ve forgotten, may become the essence of you; it’s just hard to know which one.
At music camp, at school, so it continues. Denk enters competitions, which he generally wins, becoming ever more fluent and confident, but there is always a teacher to reveal to him yet another fundamental error in his playing or to open up new, unimagined possibilities. And rapidly, the time for him to go to college approaches. He is not only brilliant musically; he has already, at fifteen, won the Chemistry Olympics, “with a super-precise titration,” and has “gushing recommendations” from his English teachers and his calculus professor.
Money is somehow found to send him to Oberlin, where he does a double degree in chemistry and piano, with many side classes, notably English literature; for light relief he reads Ulysses. He brings a piece he loves and has worked on obsessively, the Chopin Berceuse, to his teacher, Joseph Schwartz, who laughs out loud and tells him that his performance of it was “unbelievably terrible,” that he should abandon it, “since it didn’t suit me, like a piece of clothing. And at that moment I began to feel we weren’t on the same side.” He recovers his self-respect when a fellow student with whom he is working tells him, “‘Jeremy, you’re amazing,’ and somehow that was the deciding vote of confidence, the moment I decided in my heart that I would make my living as a musician.”
Denk writes feelingly on the artist’s self-dramatization, the formation of a self, sometimes manifesting as arrogance, the conviction that you have something special to contribute to the appreciation of what you are performing, grasping whatever gives you the audacity to present yourself before the public. These are as much the subject of the book as its ostensible subject, piano lessons; these are life lessons. And the lessons never end. Later Denk works with the distinguished (if halitotic) cellist Norman Fischer, who turns his world of expression upside down:
Norman lumbered over, stood next to the piano bench, and stared me right in the face. He didn’t say a word, but put on a deranged expression, like in Munch’s The Scream, and pointed at the beginning of the passage. Oh God, his breath again. I couldn’t help but play the scales in a wild, manic, satiric rush, thinking of his face, fearless because I was desperate for it to be over, and for Norman to go farther away.
Increasingly, he begins to understand that not all solutions are technical. Norman “wanted me to humanize everything first. He wanted every musical idea to have motivations, backstories, urges.” Denk spends a great deal of his musical education oscillating between the paradoxical demands on any interpreter: to examine the score forensically and to animate it with your own inner life. It is the encounter between the music and the musician that constitutes a performance; maintaining the balance between the two is a lifelong challenge. Slowly, painfully, he learns to enter the composer’s inner world. Like all adolescents, he is inclined to black-and-white dismissals. Schubert’s endless triplets he finds weak and repetitive:
Later in life, I realized that these flaws weren’t flaws. Schubert wants you to feel insufficiency…. This kind of moment in Schubert, simple to the point of breaking, like a fabric stretched thin, represents one of his most important truths—when he connects to the actual experience of life rather than some composed ideal. Life’s narratives are not full; often there is no story, or an inadequate story, not covering the gaps….
Schubert sometimes finds himself down here with us, slumped on a threadbare couch, staring at a stain on the floor, unable to leave an unproductive or tedious circular thought, not quite sure how to go on, or why.
Denk’s growing sense of being an artist, as opposed to merely a pianist, is given a decisive push when he attends a campus concert given by the Hungarian pianist György Sebők. As an encore, Sebők plays the Gigue from Bach’s First Partita. “The words ‘musical’ and ‘unmusical’ did not apply,” Denk is forced to admit.
It was as if the concepts behind the notes, playful and profound, had come alive. As he revealed each audacious but logical chord change, I experienced both shock and comprehension—surprise at something that made perfect sense.
At Sebők’s master class the following day, the nervous Denk plays the first movement of the Brahms concerto he’s been working on and slightly botches it: “Sebők told me to close my eyes for a full minute. There was silence, and I could smell the smoke from his cigarette. Then he told me that I knew the piano better than I imagined. (This rang some bell in me.)” Sebők has him play the opening again, eyes still closed. He nails the passage: “The sound was deeper and richer, even thunderous. A lifetime of difficulty had been replaced with a moment of ease.” This dazzling conjuring trick earns Sebők Denk’s absolute trust, “as if finding a piano teacher were like falling in love.”
He follows Sebők to Indiana University in Bloomington, giving himself over completely to his teaching, which is often not directly musical at all but expressed in external analogies—structure in the first movement of a Mozart sonata is illuminated by reference to a Michelangelo drawing; the second movement is “a Don Juan serenade.” “The presence of sex behind Mozart’s ruffles had been mostly unknown to me,” Denk dryly observes. Windows open onto a universe of expression and imagination.
For all Sebők’s genius as a pianist and his brilliance as a teacher, it is the entirety of his being that is the lesson:
With his elegant suits, and his expression so far above the mediocrity of the architecture, and that sense of sliding along the hall guided by his middle, it felt like he didn’t just enter your field of vision but manifested, a minor miracle.
Sebők begins to permeate all of Denk’s thinking. He astonishes a fellow student violinist, Baird Dodge, with whom he is rehearsing Brahms’s First Violin Sonata, by describing the last movement’s rondo form: “The main theme (A) was the melancholy gray present, and the episodes (B, C, whatever) were the radiant past…. Actually, I told Baird, each return was a gate crashing shut on happiness.” “Jeremy, you’re on fire,” says Baird. “This moment of communication made me maybe as happy as I’d ever been. I realized that Sebők had opened this door in me to metaphor. He’d given me permission to use a tool I’d always had.”
Denk is later exposed to the somewhat more acerbic tutelage of Sebők’s duo partner, the formidable cellist János Starker. Here, too, the lesson is to look behind the music, in between the notes. The two Hungarians give a concert:
Starker never wanted a moment of schmaltz, and Sebők never wanted to show off. And so the hyper-Romantic Franck Sonata sounded like a shrine, a place where emotions went to get purified….
The Franck’s odd and beautiful reserve brought to life what I’d only known intellectually: all that Sebők and Starker had survived, wars, Fascists, Communists, labor camps, all the homes and homelands and ways of life they’d left for boring, calm Bloomington. Their musical ideals were what remained, the few items of value that the world had not yet managed to take away.
He has other teachers, some brutal, some illuminating—the metronome fanatic Walter Levin, the foulmouthed and drunkenly inspired Harvey Shapiro, Herbert Stessin, suffering from incipient Parkinson’s disease—but it is Sebők whose lessons effect a fundamental shift in his understanding. Denk urges him to write down his thoughts: “No. The most important things I have to say can’t be written down. They won’t survive a book.” It is a pleasing irony that in Every Good Boy Does Fine Denk has given permanent form to what Sebők imagined would not survive; in the book they stand for all time as an example of an approach that is neither mechanical nor doctrinaire. Denk’s farewell to Sebők is deeply emotional:
“All the best for your future,” he said at last, as he held open the door. He didn’t mean that to be brutal, I don’t think. I rounded the oval out of his sight and cried in the first empty cubicle I could find.
Denk finally becomes a teacher himself, back at Bloomington, though not for long, as his concert career beckons. With painful honesty, he describes his going-away party, at which his students give him
a 24-pack of Kleenex, to have in the studio for all the hundreds of times I’d made and would make them cry….
The room was quiet. After all the piano lesson suffering I’d been through, had I come up with no better, no more creative response than to inflict it on the next generation? At last I said, “Oh, I’m so sorry.”
This is where the story of piano lessons, Denk’s Lehrjahre, comes to an end, but it is part of the larger conception. Each of the three sections—on melody, harmony, and rhythm—is given initial shape by a Lesson One, in which Denk grapples with conveying its essential character, the way in which it works. With the first, harmony, it’s a challenge:
If you mention harmony to a non-musician, best of luck. I’ve watched many eyes glaze over. Maybe the person knows there’s such a thing as a D-minor chord, but he/she can’t hum it. You explain: that’s because it doesn’t exist consecutively but simultaneously, or, really, abstractly—then you get flustered, realizing everything you just said is kind of wrong. Meanwhile they feel you are lecturing them, and rightly so—what does all this have to do with the joy and raw feeling of music?
He comes at the answer to this question from a number of angles—including verbal analysis, of course:
Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, between 1770 and 1820 or so, all built off the same basic set of chords, like a starter set of Legos. There are extensions, excursions, extenuations, but basically they work from good old one, four, and five, the fundamental trio. Harmonies are a vehicle, a stage, a backdrop…. For the most part, no individual creates a harmony. They are there for all of us, a common good, a common resource.
“Are harmony and melody friends or enemies?” he asks, noting that for pianists, their two hands are their whole world; they have to fill everything in, “otherwise the melody will be naked and alone, and the piano’s weakness as an instrument will be exposed.” He tries another tack: “I’m not sure I can discuss harmony without talking about sex,” he tells a friend, elaborating that
at the heart of the art of harmony is desire. That is, the desire for one chord to go to another. In every sentence of chords this desire operates, to one degree or another, sometimes playfully, other times urgently. One of the most common motions between chords is from what we call the “dominant” to the “tonic.” If you don’t know what that means, sing “Happy Birthday” and then stop at the end, on the last two notes, “to…you.”
He now invokes a simple diagram to demonstrate, in this instance, Bach’s harmonies: the lesson, he says, is “about how you build these beautiful stacks, with their kaleidoscopic colors, while still accommodating the musical equivalent of a support beam.”
But entertaining though all that is, it is difficult to hear what it is that he’s demonstrating without, well, hearing it. Each chapter is headed by a playlist of pieces alluded to, but to bring nonmusicians closer to the mystery it might have been useful to have included a CD with commentary.
As Denk predicts, it’s much easier to write—and to read—about melody and rhythm, and these chapters are filled with insights:
For my childhood teachers, freedom and laziness were connected. To be disciplined was to be strict. There was no such thing as disciplined departure. I was allowed to play without the metronome only if I promised to be good—a musical parole. All this negativity and policing reveals how powerful rhythm is, how central, and—here’s the thing!—how connected it is to the concept of liberty. This is just as true for orchestra members as for my clubbing friends who, while dancing to the robotic, prefabricated beat, are telling me to “just let go.” Harmonies wander; melodies develop or disintegrate; but only rhythms can truly be free.
There is one final aspect of the book that contributes substantially to its originality: it is a coming-out story. Denk is openly gay—a still remarkably rare phenomenon in the world of classical music. The conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the tenor Michael Fabiano, and the pianist Stephen Hough are others; Denk is one of the very few who writes about his homosexuality in a musical setting. Flute, the autobiography of the late Richard Adeney, sometime principal flute player of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, also comes to mind. Even Denk writes about his burgeoning sexuality only in a personal capacity and has nothing to say about changing attitudes within the profession. But his story—of a late developer, as he puts it—is carefully, even musically, placed throughout the book: a long hesitation waltz, as he charts the anxious awareness of attraction, the evasions, the panic, the hopeless crushes. “If you’re in a conservatory,” he writes, “I’d advise you not to get involved musically with people you have even the remotest sense you might be in love with, which can be filed under Advice No One Will Ever Take.”
The funniest, most characteristic, and most painful missed opportunity has him obliviously straying into a notorious cruising ground in Central Park while being immersed in close scrutiny of a Monteverdi madrigal about spurned love. A man approaches him; he freezes until the man, baffled, leaves. All the while, and over the years, he doggedly attempts sexual relationships with women, until he is dumped by one of them for being “an emotional cipher.” At last, he beds a man, but it is a fumbling disaster, after which he goes online, hooks up with an anonymous man, and finally engages with his sexuality. The relief, his and ours, is palpable; and not much later, as if in a Puccini opera, he erupts in an uncharacteristic burst of lyricism:
A week later, I drove up to the Marlboro Music School, in the rolling near-mountains of southern Vermont, and there you were, staring back at me in the dining hall at lunch. The look was direct and unashamed….
And there you were (again) in the coffee shop, as beautiful as anyone I’d ever seen. We drank a few beers, talking, as if just joshing around. But then, down the hill on the way to our dorm, a couple hours later, we were making out…. I didn’t care who saw or who knew. I didn’t have to come out; I was already way, way out. We…walked along a dark gravel road—snippets of music, summer, nature, night. I asked what you wanted. You said, “Everything.”
Every Good Boy Does Fine ends with an analysis of the rondo finale of Mozart’s 25th Piano Concerto, with its rapid progression from innocent artlessness through a succession of increasingly unsettled moods until it arrives, refreshed, back at the beginning. “Mozart prepares the return of this theme with unprecedented inspiration,” says Denk. “He goes to the ends of the musical earth to bring us home. And yet, after all that, it still feels like an accident when you find yourself back on solid ground.” As he does throughout the book, Denk weaves invisible threads connecting life and art into something very close to musical form. The book, it is by now crystal clear, has been all about transitions, mostly effected by teachers:
Sometimes you wish you could go back to ask your teachers again to guide you; but up there onstage, exactly where they always wanted you to be, you must simply find your way. They have given all the help they can; the only person who can solve the labyrinth of yourself is you.