Jeremy Denk's memoir, Every Good Boy Does Fine, is a poignant exploration into his development from a scrappy, sensitive child of troubled parents into a McArthur "Genius" pianist.
Denk's father had been a monk in the Catholic church for a decade, when he decided he needed to rejoin the world:
"He felt he was engaged in a form of escapism---devotion to God was a moral failing greater than all the rest. He drove away from Catholicism in May 1969, and was stopped for speeding in Tennessee. I was born in 1970."
Denk's mother was a divorcée with three children when she met and hastily married his father, and by the time Jeremy was 10, it became clear that she was an alcoholic:
"Drinking by that point [had] become mom's true discipline, demanding daily repetition and devotion---just like my piano playing. Both of us were getting more serious, digging in."
Denk struggles with questions about his ambiguous sexuality, his father's stoicism and disapproval, his mother's increasing decline, and the trials and tribulations of his piano lessons with early teachers. In college Denk meets Hungarian pianist György Sebők who becomes his most important mentor:
Sebők: "'The secret to Heifetz was that he never imagined he could miss a note....That sounds ridiculous to say, perhaps. But the thing is, he probably never practiced with fear. If he missed a note, he said, well, I have to shift a little higher or move this way or that way, but he didn't let himself learn the fear of the missed note. You, on the other hand,' he continued, 'are running for that chord as if it were running from you.'"
Denk speaks more about his fears at competitions:
"I remember practicing for the finals, feeling confident, when another pianist knocked on my door, then came in to try to psyche me out, saying, 'You're so sure you will get to the finals?' in a weird and undermining tone. Maybe my fear and suspicion of other pianists...goes back to that moment.'
Denk waxes philosophically about the learning how to play music beautifully:
"Rhythm, like smell, is an atmosphere you get used to, that you don't notice, after a short time. Our idea of what is proper rhythm seems so natural that we don't consider our biases."
His memoir is filled with the wisdom he has gathered from teachers and his experiences as a touring pianist.
"I lifted my arm confidently to play a passage. A flurry of wrong notes rang out. I had a moment of panic...and was beginning a litany of self-blame when I heard a voice in my head, with a quaint Hungarian accent: 'The problem with you, is that you're a perfectionist.' I played more freely.... [My teacher] Leland had been right to remind me that there was no end to the details one could strive for. But Sebők was also right---the desire for perfection could be a deadly weakness. Living comfortably in that paradox...is part of being a musician."
I enjoyed reading Every Good Boy Does Fine, as well as listening to Denk's narration and piano excerpts which were included in the audiobook. This book is for pianists and for the classical music lover who might like to gain a deeper understanding of how one becomes a professional musician. Though it gets bogged down in the details sometimes, I am glad I continued reading; it's not often that we can learn such intimate details about a virtuoso while they are still alive and performing. As with Alicia Keys' More Myself, I find the journey to artistry fascinating.
Hardcover 384 pages, Audiobook 13 hours, 16 minutes.
Click below to view on Amazon, or better yet, visit your local bookstore!