Music Lessons for Life

In his memoir, Every Good Boy Does Fine, pianist Jeremy Denk lets music tell his story.

jeremy denk, every good boy does fine
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When I was 16, I said goodbye to someone who had changed my life. The last time we saw each other, they gave me a poem. It was composed and delivered on elegant cream-colored stationery with gold trim, handwritten in neat lines of round legible cursive in black ink. It began:

And what can be said at
the parting of the
ways—
Can the pain be measured?
Life lunges forward,
Upsetting the carefully
weighed
applecart.
To the drawing board
once again.
But another “Once upon a time…”

This ode was not composed by a peer. It was certainly not the work of my pimply jock of a high school boyfriend. Rather, it was written by a middle-aged woman with dark eyes and silver-streaked hair who had two teenage girls of her own. She was my piano teacher, and her name, quite perfectly, was Melodye Sparks.

My dad had a new job, and my family was moving from a small town in Tennessee to a medium-size city in North Carolina, which meant saying goodbye to the house I’d grown up in, all my friends, and my piano teacher. Leaving Miss Melodye, as I called her, was especially hard. A future without her grounding presence in my life felt rudderless.

Music lessons can be vulnerable, intimate spaces. In the best of circumstances, they are wellsprings of growth and self-discovery. Alternatively, they can be ground zero for stress, anxiety, self-doubt.

In his memoir, Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, in Music Lessons, concert pianist Jeremy Denk reveals his life story one music teacher at a time, writing insightfully and affectionately about the intricacies and intimacies of the music teacher–music student dynamic.

Denk describes the frustrations and elations of learning scale fingerings and practicing sonatinas with his early teacher Lillian Livingston. He dissects the growth, headbutting, and essential epiphanies of his teenage lessons with William Leland in New Mexico and Joseph Schwartz at Oberlin. He reveals sizzling, transformative musical connections discovered while working with Hungarian pianist György Sebők and others at Indiana University, Juilliard, and elsewhere.

Because so many decades of my own life were dominated and defined by piano lessons, I found Denk’s recollections strikingly and startlingly familiar. When he describes meeting Norman Fischer, he writes, “Both Norman and the room exhaled halitosis and cologne.” Professors of music tend to inhabit cramped studios. They’re frequently older, European, male. Every music student knows this smell.

I remember details about my piano teachers more vividly than I do some ex-boyfriends. Smells. Mannerisms. Artistic exchanges of the soul. These relationships are so defining, so intimate. Denk excavates them with precision, tracing the contours of his music teachers with the close attention some memoirists give to lovers, family members, or dear friends.

When Denk recalls his first encounter with Sebők, one of his most defining musical guides, the chemistry they share electrifies his prose. “It was odd, the way he walked onto the stage,” he writes of Sebők, “as if the stage floor were not wood but some sort of sliding and supporting carpet.”

Denk goes on to describe his first interaction with Sebők, whom he affectionately refers to as “my idealistic Hungarian Yoda.” They meet in a master class in front of an audience of music teachers and students. Denk performs the first movement of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto, and Sebők coaches him, all the while smoking “in flagrant contravention of college rules, from a long cigarette holder.” Then, Sebők offers a relatively simple solution (close your eyes and visualize what you will play) that elicits profound results; Denk achieves a long-sought-after sound, “deeper and richer, even thunderous.” After the master class, another professor, Robert McDonald, makes a comment to Denk about his interaction with Sebők: “ ‘A rare connection,’ he said, as if finding a piano teacher were like falling in love.”

Connecting with a music teacher is an adjacent experience to falling in love. As Denk reveals, music teacher–music student relationships can be intense, beautiful, complex, intoxicating, transformative, infuriating, toxic, even codependent. As with any relationship, feelings are involved, and feelings get hurt. Communication can break down. And, as in romantic relationships, it’s all about timing. I was particularly entranced by Denk’s descriptions of his transitions from teacher to teacher, which portray so accurately what it feels like to grow into or out of a relationship or return to one after experiencing another.

Perhaps that’s what got me thinking about Miss Melodye. Or maybe it was this line from Denk’s account of meeting his mentor and friend Evelyne Brancart: “Here was someone willing to look me right in the eye and say that I had something to offer the world. I was always going back and forth from confidence to doubt, and Evelyne’s look felt like a hand laid on my mind, telling it to stop vacillating.”

Much like Denk’s second piano teacher, Lillian Livingston, my Miss Melodye was the best brand of tutor who came along at just the right time—the inspiring, demanding, encouraging, musically expressive sort that introduces you to your first Chopin nocturnes and Beethoven sonatas and organizes weekend music-theory lessons (with homemade workbooks and snacks) in a heavily upholstered living room.

In many ways, Miss Melodye knew me better than anyone else. I remember crying in front of her on numerous occasions. I can recall the thrilling snap of success when a small musical or physical adjustment she suggested solved a thorny technical problem. I also remember one lesson during which we didn’t play the piano at all: The verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial was coming down, so we played hooky in her back room and watched the news for the duration of the lesson. Innocent! We couldn’t believe it. O.J. got away with murder, and I (for once) got away with a week of lackluster practice.

Ultimately, it’s impossible to explain why my relationship with Miss Melodye was so pivotal without getting into my life story, which I won’t do here, except to point out that music lessons sometimes take place against a backdrop of sadness, loss, or trauma.

Denk digs into all of that. Apart from his piano teachers, the two people he deals with the most in his book are his parents. His mother, in addition to chiding him as he practices his scales, drinks herself to a close encounter with death and an extended stint in the hospital. In between music lessons and homework, his father’s infidelity inserts itself. It’s his father’s life choices, guilt complexes, and unrealized ambitions that push him toward the best piano teachers in town, the biggest competitions, the perfect grades.

When I was in graduate school at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, my piano pedagogy professor, Dr. Sam Holland, passed down wise advice from his pedagogical mentor: Always teach the person first, music second, and the piano third.

This was a necessary revelation for a stressed-out 22-year-old who was living and breathing piano, piano, piano. It was as if he had said, Snap out of it! The piano is just an instrument, if a beautiful one. Don’t you remember? Music is the medium; art is why you’re here. And most important, life is the point. So eat something and get some sleep and have some fun, for Christ’s sake.

I kept thinking of this lesson as I read Denk’s memoir, which is divided into three sections: Harmony, Melody, and Rhythm. In each section, Denk toggles between chapters that reveal his life story chronologically and chapters centered on musical lessons. I find the way he describes playing the piano viscerally accurate (“You could say that my left hand is older than my right, and wiser, and so much lazier”) and the way he breaks down complex musical concepts relatable and engaging (“Harmonies change from toddler-innocent to old-man-complicated and back”). But it is when he turns a musical point into a human one that his writing sings.

Consider his discussion of the challenges involved in playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Rhythmically, one hand plays three notes per beat, while the other hand simultaneously subdivides each beat by four. This means “the melody and accompaniment notes are the slightest bit not together,” Denk explains. “You can obey your teacher and turn on the metronome and count like mad, but what you’re after is that sense of the irreconcilable, a desire that it might all add up, and a fear that it won’t.”

Denk is a superb writer, something that cannot be said about many (most?) pianists of his caliber. He organizes and composes his prose with an ear for pacing and flow. He lives and breathes metaphor, a characteristic he shares with his beloved Sebők. He is also consistently funny. His biting sarcasm, which I remember well from reading his long-winded blog posts a decade ago, has softened and refined, less defense mechanism and more charming quips. All of this makes for a quick and fun read, a fascinating glimpse into the backstory of a brilliant musician, and a beautiful exploration of music.

But that’s not the best part. Denk, a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant and the Avery Fisher Prize, is a deep thinker and a vulnerable memoirist. Throughout the years covered in the bulk of his book, Denk, who is gay, is closeted. Tensions from this unrecognized identity simmer beneath the surface of the musical lessons he lays out like a dissonant, slowly unfurling harmonic progression that never quite resolves (until it does).

Even though Denk was born on the East Coast and lives in New York City now, he bookends his life story with scenes set in New Mexico, where he spent his adolescence and where he returns on vacation in the book’s last chapter. The mountains. The desert air. The dark, star-studded night sky. These are as much a part of Denk’s story as the music of Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart.

In the final scene of his book, Denk sits in a hot tub in New Mexico watching the sunrise. We have just been reading, in minute detail, about a brief musical transition in the middle of Mozart’s Concerto in C Major. “Was it more beautiful two minutes earlier or now?” he writes of the desert sky. “I kept trying to hold in my mind those in-between colors. I wanted to live in the transitions.”

Denk has reached the middle of his life, that time when mentors and parents fall ill and die. A time when we have no choice but to live in the transitions, to deal with “the irreconcilable, a desire that it might all add up, and a fear that it won’t.”

I’d been reminded of Miss Melodye (and so many other defining teachers) throughout Denk’s book, but it was when I read his final contemplations on loss that I remembered her poem. When I closed his book, I dug her handwritten verse out of a box in the back of a closet. (I also, almost immediately, began practicing a Mozart sonata.) Here’s how the poem ends:

How precariously we teeter,
So vulnerable!
Our emotions swirl like raging water.
Round and round—the entwining of hearts
and souls.
A revolving door—neither open nor closed.
Fasten the bonds
TRUE FRIENDSHIP
Strength for the new road.•

Random House
EVERY GOOD BOY DOES FINE: A LOVE STORY, IN MUSIC LESSONS, BY JEREMY DENK
Random House Bookshop.org
$26.67

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