Jeremy Denk may be one of the finest concert pianists of his generation, but his warm, shaky memoir Any good boy is fine: A love story in music class should appeal not only to anyone who has taken music lessons, but to anyone striving for excellence in a creative field.
He tells of the perils and triumphs of his long musical education and offers a rare behind-the-scenes look at how a musician develops into a virtuoso. The book also makes a valuable and unique contribution to today’s fragile popular understanding and appreciation of classical music. Because Jeremy Denk has developed into more than a musician – he is a musical statesman.
There have been major popularizers of classical music over the years. Leonard Bernstein comes to mind, and in their way José Iturbi, Beverly Sills, Andrea Bocelli and others. Denk is unique in that through his writing he has developed a distinctive, even poetic, way of relating elements of classical music to universal aspects of the human spirit.
To this end, he groups chapters according to musical concepts: harmony, melody, rhythm. He compares musically harmony to desire – one chord wants to another. melody is both a noun and a verb that wants to be fixed and memorable but needs to change. and rhythm is paradoxically a key to liberating mind and body, whether it’s the wild heart leaps of Beethoven or the pounding backbeat of the popular dance music Denk despises.
For example, when he talks about the usual division of labor between a pianist’s left and right hand, he recognizes a deep equivalence with life and society:
For the pianist, this division of melody and harmony becomes… a part of your body. The left hand takes care of the harmony and acts as a backup band, the mass; the right gets the good tunes and a lot of the credit. It’s not just about you doing two tasks at the same time, but two different impulses. One half the soloist individual; the other, the accompanying world. A half specific, discrete performance; the other half the common, discrete good.
Music is the most difficult of all arts to describe in words. Denk has the rare ability to bring it alive from the printed page, as when describing the voyage on Bach’s Titanic Well-Tempered Clavier takes both the keyboardist and the listener: “If we started driving the Atlantic, we now face the Pacific – a colder ocean, with powerful sunsets but also confusing fog.”
Such well-considered flights of thought make his story a good thread, even if you don’t know much about classical music. And whether you do it or not, it pays to stop your reading frequently, as I did, to listen to the pieces he’s talking about. (You’ll find all or most of them on your streaming service of choice, often in the specific performances he’s hinting at.) The musical moments he’s hinting at are insightful and fun to listen to. It was also a great opportunity for me to discover wonderful music that I had never heard or appreciated before. (In an appendix, he explains why these particular works formed the “playlist” of his book.)
But what really keeps the reader engaged is the story of Denk’s musical studies, from childhood piano lessons through college at the Oberlin Conservatory to further education in Indiana and Juilliard. Entertaining character sketches bring his teachers to life in all their eccentricities. His deep esteem for her is evident, especially for his most important mentor, György Sebők.
He doesn’t spare himself either; His failures, frustrations, and misadventures make his story all too human.
Artistic revelations, which Denk considers important for his pianistic development, shape the story. Sometimes these are triggered by a casual comment from a colleague, sometimes by a deeper lesson taught by a thoughtful teacher. Taken together, these moments of growth, these bumps and turning points reinforce the idea that an artist—or a practitioner of a creative endeavor—learns and grows over the course of a career and life. The book takes us behind the scenes and makes it clear, for example, that when we see a musician performing a brilliant concert that sounds like sublime perfection to us, he’s probably struggling inside, thinking in real time, regretting some decisions and reconsidering others .
Denk also includes mentions of how he teaches his own students. His own guides and mentors have no doubt also influenced his pedagogical vocation, which he pursues alongside his concert career and writing.
This is far from a book just for musicians. Jeremy Denk’s vivid and remarkably detailed memoirs will appeal to anyone who has strived for excellence in any field. In addition to being an acclaimed concert performer, he is also a well-known writer whose articles on musical subjects have been published in The New Yorker, The guard, New York Times book review and elsewhere. We should be thankful that he studied both writing and music; he recalls how a professor’s criticism of a college essay he had written made him realize that “the very aim of study and practice” is to discover a “truth that has been hard to find, a hard-won reward.” … I didn’t know it yet, but I got my most important music lesson in English class.”
Skillfully told Any good boy is fine is a significant new chapter in his corpus and a significant contribution to the literature of the musical arts. It deserves a wide readership inside and outside the music world.