Book reviews in each issue of the Piano Magazine provide readers with a sneak peek inside the latest publications on piano teaching, performing, and learning. The Autumn 2022 Piano Magazine review of Every Good Boy Does Fine by Jeremy Denk will have you running to your local bookstore to buy a copy. Fans of Denk will find this review by Ann DuHamel to be as inspiring, witty, and insightful as Denk’s own writing. We welcome you to read the complete review here and subscribe to enjoy more excellent reviews in Piano Magazine.
I am secretly, or not so secretly, if you ask my husband or any student who has lived through my Piano from Bach to Jazz class, a huge fan of Jeremy Denk. Yes, he plays marvelously; but beyond his artistry at the keyboard, I’m completely, utterly enamored of his gift with words. Reading his (now archived) blog Think Denk was a frequent pleasure during my doctoral program. I found it poetic, poignant, humorous, and occasionally heartbreaking. When I learned of the publication of Every Good Boy Does Fine, I counted down the days until it arrived. The short review of this book is: if you haven’t already read it, purchase it immediately, and read it now. Do not pass “Go,” etc. Keep in mind, I’m an awkward and nerdy bibliophile who, like Denk, much prefers Brahms to Rachmaninoff, so I identify strongly with most every sentence in the book.
You, gentle reader, probably seek a more nuanced take beyond my exhortation. This memoir reflects on Denk’s life, pianistic and otherwise, through his doctoral work at Juilliard. He structures the narrative in three overarching sections, “Harmony” (pre-college), “Melody” (undergraduate years at Oberlin), and “Rhythm” (time in Bloomington, Indiana, studying with György Sebok, and after). Each section is subdivided into six or seven parts; musical lessons and commentary alternate with biographical chapters.
Denk describes every pianist’s foibles and tribulations in true and hilarious ways: “having two hands makes the piano impossible”1 and, “Will I ever be done with the thumb? The answer was No, never.”2 His aphorisms brilliantly sum up the importance of listening, frequently recalling his beloved mentor Sebok: “Remember…the music is not the notes. It is between the notes.”3
He illuminates the importance of the score and textual detail: “when the composer’s marking seems most insane is when you need to pay the closest attention”4 and, most marvelously, “the written page of music was a treasure map.”5
The musical observations merge with philosophy, undergirding Proustian reflections about how time, music, and memory intertwine. This is what I so enjoy about reading Denk: he is a philosopher and a poet, searching for deep meaning, giving voice to what we quest for in our lives. Music simply happens to be the metaphor he uses in his writing, from the Bach B-minor fugue of WTC I, “a journey from known to known, via unfathomable mystery”6 to the Chopin F-minor Ballade, which “…carries a truth: You do not decide where to go, and then begin going there. In real life, while you are deciding where to go, you are already traveling.”7
Lest you think it’s all heavy lifting, Denk’s wry humor is also on full display. In describing various musical elements, he utilizes wonderful and bizarre analogies—Wile E. Coyote, taxidermied squirrels, cars sliding into snow drifts, the wardrobe leading to Narnia. He pokes a fair bit of fun at himself too: what other kid proclaims the PBS opera album as their “new life soundtrack”8 or writes a “manifesto for a utopian society”?9 Even so, or because of this, when he reveals his epiphanies and shares his successes, you the reader rejoice along with him.
At the top of each chapter, Denk offers a curated playlist, featuring the works he discusses within. These works range from Bach to Messiaen, Monteverdi to Elliot Carter, and include Barbra Streisand singing Gounod’s “Ave Maria” and Nina Simone. The annotated appendix provides greater detail, including his recommendations for recordings and the word “Bachitude,” which I have now added to my lexicon.
This is a coming-of-age story. It is also a love story, primarily to the teacher who serves as mentor and guru. Denk shares pages of uplifting anecdotes from Sebok: lessons about beauty, about ennobling oneself, about teaching and discovery, demonstrating the utmost importance of one’s teacher in molding the musician and the human being.
The book is, in Denk’s words from the opening Prelude,
“…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. …that is the point of this book: a love for the steps, the joys of growing and outgrowing and being outgrown.”10
And what a beautiful testimony to the steps this book is indeed. I find myself, in the days and weeks after reading the book, approaching my practice differently, through a Denk-ian lens. In the appendix, regarding Mozart K. 545, Denk poses the question, “How can you teach, and still be transcendental?”11 I daresay this book is a masterclass in exactly how to teach and still be transcendental. (Random House, 2022, 384 pages, $28.99 hardcover and other formats available).
1 Jeremy Denk, Every Good Boy Does Fine (New York: Random House, 2022), 27.
2 Ibid, 47.
3 Ibid, 258.
4 Ibid, 178.
5 Ibid, 278.
6 Ibid, 104.
7 ibid, 107; Denk is specifically referencing the returning melody in mm. 134–135 with this quote.
8 Ibid, 23.
9 Ibid, 49.
10 Ibid, xi.
11 Ibid, 342.