Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, in Music Lessons, by Jeremy Denk
Published online: 1 March 2022
- Issue: Volume 62, No.1
- DOI: https://doi.org/10.18177/sym.2022.62.rev.11555
Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, in Music Lessons. Jeremy Denk. New York: Random House, 2022. 384 pp. ISBN: 9780812995985. $28.99.
Jeremy Denk (b. 1970) is among the most visible American musical polymaths active today. Musical exploration is central to his existence as a touring and recording artist, writer, and creative mind. His interpretations of repertoire from J.S. Bach and Mozart to Kirchner and living composers, compellingly rendered in Denk’s work as a soloist and chamber musician, stand out for their integrity and consistent inspiration. Denk’s numerous accomplishments, including a prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, have earned him admiration and respect from colleagues, audiences, and music critics alike. Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, in Music Lessons is Denk’s debut monograph and an expansion of a 2013 essay for The New Yorker of the same title (Denk 2013). An homage to the special bond that exists between musicians and the teachers who shape them, the title recalls the famous mnemonic that helps beginner music students recall the pitches on each line of the staff in treble clef: E, G, B, D, and F. Denk’s book is more substantive and expansive than the publisher’s limited marketing description of the title as a “memoir.” It is more accurately described as a non-fiction account of the transformational lifelong impact that private studio teachers can have on their students, with integrated musical analysis and commentary that is of interest to connoisseurs, students, educators, and professional musicians alike.
The book is structured as a road trip through the author’s musical coming-of-age journey, with substantive musings on individual works serving as the soundtrack. Divided into three sections, “Melody,” “Harmony,” and “Rhythm,” which generally correspond to his childhood years; college years at Oberlin; and lastly, his time at Indiana University, Juilliard, and early career years, Denk evenly covers the emotional, fun, perilous, and negative experiences with teachers whose instruction certainly left a mark on his playing and emotional development. He is intentional about tracing the arc of his relationship with each teacher and how those connections evolve to the point at which the student is ready to move on to another teacher.
Each of the three sections explores how the respective musical concepts (of melody, harmony, and rhythm) ought to be considered and appreciated. This discourse operates in tandem with Denk’s recounting of the personal journeys he experienced with each of his piano teachers and mentors. Each educator who played a role in his development has an important place in informing his approach to musicianship today, even if he has to make sense of years of seemingly contrasting advice. In linking personal stories with potentially abstract discussions of repertoire, musicianship, and technique, Denk makes the point that each teacher has a role in the cultivation of their students’ music-making abilities, just as melody, harmony, and rhythm play distinct roles in a work, but together create the magic. (Along the way are some not-so-subtle digs at the general listener’s unnuanced obsession with melody over harmony and rhythm). It becomes the students’ responsibility to filter through the fray of instruction to develop advanced technique, critical thinking, and the ability to constantly seek improvement.
Each chapter opens with a short playlist of musical works that are discussed in that section of the book, representing an aural accompaniment to Denk’s reflections. While the selections do not always align as a soundtrack with Denk’s storytelling, listening while reading enhances understanding of the intricate technical descriptions of repertoire and often humorous recounting of performance or relationship blunders. Although this type of non-fiction book often becomes an exercise in egoism, Denk’s self-professed nerdiness and personality shine through with a full range of emotions that are relatable for many readers. It reads like a late-night conversation with a musical friend, in which reminiscences of humorous or traumatic moments can be laughed off in a self-deprecating manner and appreciated for their subconscious meaning or impact. A recurring theme during Denk’s college years at Oberlin was his near-obsession with taking paid collaborative piano work (albeit for financial reasons) at the expense of his solo piano studies and practice time. Intense non-musical academic coursework also contributed to “self-sabotage” at times with piano, as Denk once botched a high-profile master class opportunity with Leon Fleisher for lack of preparation (158-59). Reminiscences of how friends jovially called him out for these missteps make Denk relatable to the average musician and reader. He implies that respected touring musicians are fallible and human.
Denk’s honest accounting of life as an aspiring musician, with all its financial challenges, precarious emotional entanglements, and self-imposed, high-stakes decision making is relatable to any music student. In writing of his constant hustle to take accompanist work, try to satisfy parental pressures, and overcome insecurities, Denk explores a common trope in artist memoirs: the starving artist clamoring to make it. After years of gradually building repertoire, skill, and a career, Denk comes to realize he’s made it, with the help of many teachers along the way, from Mona Schneiderman, the piano teacher in Denk’s childhood neighborhood in North Carolina, to Joseph Schwartz at Oberlin, who along with conductor Larry Rachleff, significantly advanced Denk’s technique and understanding of precision through the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble.
Among the most charming episodes of the book are recollections of lessons and advice from Denk’s principal childhood piano teacher Bill Leland, longtime piano faculty at New Mexico State University. Images from their lesson notebooks accompany descriptions of Denk’s early intellectual growth as he tackled repertoire and technical exercises, depicting Leland’s tiny, cheeky drawings of Denk’s brain growing in size during each lesson (52-53). Denk recalls many of these lessons later during his time at Oberlin and early in his touring career, with a perplexed resignation about how he sometimes struggles to observe teachers’ advice that has been a part of his subconscious for decades (330-31). Denk’s years of study with Hungarian-American pianist György Sebők at Indiana University, his “idealistic Hungarian Yoda,” were an important final stage in transitioning Denk from a fledgling student pianist to an artist who came to learn the importance of what happens between the notes (60). Among Sebők’s greatest lessons was the importance of understanding the grammar of music to gain technical mastery and have a foundation from which to advance to artistry and giving life to music through interpretation (230-31).
Full of personality, witticisms, and intriguing musical commentary, Denk’s book is an engaging read that provokes nostalgia, artistic curiosity, and reflection about the lessons imparted by teachers and mentors that continue to shape musicians’ identities way beyond the intensive shared moments in studios and practice rooms. If approached as a more traditional living musician memoir–such as John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life, Denk’s Every Good Boy Does Fine leaves the reader wanting more, in a good way. The balance of personal stories with musical commentary keeps the book engaging for the average concert-goer. The discussion of personal relationships outside of music lessons, except for Denk’s relationships with his parents, is not fully fleshed out. These stories primarily serve as a means of creating the environmental context for what is depicted as the more profound edification gained from trying to make sense of life through music lessons. The personal stories tend to have a faster pace than the more technical discussions. Denk avoids advanced technical language that would significantly decrease general readers’ interest in the book. Every Good Boy Does Fine should be required reading for any college-aged music student who is contemplating the next steps in their career journey, although many of these readers would inevitably underestimate some of the lessons they encounter in the book, just as Denk did when he heard them from his teachers.
Adams, John. 2008. Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life. New York: Picador.
Denk, Jeremy. 2013. “Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Life in Piano Lessons.” The New Yorker, 1 April. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/04/08/every-good-boy-does-fine. Accessed 5 February 2022.
Nicholas Alexander Brown is a library executive and musicologist based in Maryland. He teaches music librarianship at The Catholic University of America and is a former Army bandsman. His writing has been featured in Library Journal, The Horn Book, and scholarly publications with Oxford University Press and Transcript Verlag.