A memoir that is also an immersive exploration of classical music—its power, its meanings, and what it can teach us about ourselves—from the MacArthur Genius Grant-winning pianist. Renowned pianist Jeremy Denk traces an implausible journey. His life is already a little tough as a precocious, temperamental six-year-old piano prodigy in New Jersey, and then a family meltdown forces a move to New Mexico. There, Denk must please a new taskmaster, an embittered but devoted professor, while navigating junior high school. At sixteen he escapes to college in Ohio, only to encounter a bewildering new cast of music teachers, both kind and cruel. After many humiliations and a few triumphs, he ultimately finds his way as a world-touring pianist, a MacArthur "Genius," and a frequent performer at Carnegie Hall.
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 ... None of these books, however, comes close to the scope of Every Good Boy Does Fine ... Every Good Boy Does Fine...is wildly ambitious, far exceeding the author’s modest description of it as 'the story of piano lessons' ... The book is laid out in musical form: three substantial sections on harmony, melody, and rhythm ... 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 ... There is one final aspect of the book that contributes substantially to its originality: it is a coming-out story ... As he does throughout the book, Denk weaves invisible threads connecting life and art into something very close to musical form.
Every Good Boy Does Fine, has its share of private sorrow and family conflict. But for the most part this lucid and bittersweet coming-of-age story takes place inside the humdrum world of the studio ... If that sounds like a dull subject, consider that some of the greatest fugues are composed on unpromising theme ... Part of it retraces Denk’s erotic awakening with acuity and compassion. But as that process develops at its own befuddled pace, his conquest of technical difficulties storms ahead, while his musical horizons gradually expand. Inevitably, these different tempos bump up against each other in poignant and sometimes comical ways ... Denk also finds memorable ways to illuminate music theory. Dotted throughout the book are discursions on melody, harmony and rhythm, illustrated through musical examples, which become like a playlist accompanying each chapter. Much of the time, Denk elegantly sidesteps the need for music notation ... Most important, he explains abstract concepts with empathy and precision ... When Denk’s own romantic and sexual resolution arrives, late in the book, he brings the reader into intimacy with his own elation through a grammatical trick as unexpected as one of Schubert’s harmonic modulations. As an unnamed 'you' appears on the page, it feels as if all that came before — the punishing thumb exercises and scales, the blind groping for musical truths — had been nothing more than an organic unfolding, until Denk was at last able to be 'both individual and nature, the sigh and the dance.'
This charming book explores how Denk became a master poet of music. At its heart, the memoir is about not the growth of the pianist but growth of the person ... When the author recounts powerful moments...he writes with both great emotion and restraint ... Sometimes the author tells personal stories from his youth in order to explain musical ideas. At other times, he uses musical conceits to animate larger human experiences ... This memoir is structured as carefully as a sonata. Following the harmony section comes a melody section ... The book's final section about rhythm explores the paradoxical nature of strict form in music.