Jeremy Denk (1970-), pianist, writer
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, live, New York, 2012
Two summers ago, I was playing concerts in Santa Fe, some five hours’ drive from where I grew up. Travel is more difficult for my parents than it used to be, but they made the trek to hear me. They brought along a strange gift—a black notebook with my name on the front, written in my best prepubescent cursive. It had been excavated from a closet and smelled faintly of mothballs. I’d forgotten it existed but recognized it instantly: my piano-lesson journal. Starting in 1981, when I was eleven, it sat on my music rack, so that I could consult, or pretend to consult, my teacher’s comments. Week after week, he wrote down what I’d played and how it went, and outlined the next week’s goals.
I paged through nostalgically, reflecting on how far I’d come. But a few days later I was onstage, performing, and a voice made itself heard in my head: “Better not play faster than you can think.” It was the notebook talking. I was indeed playing faster than I could think—sometimes your fingers have plans of their own. The notebook voice went on. “Keep back straight,” it said. “Beware of concentration lapses.” Through several subsequent concerts, it lodged complaints and probed weaknesses, delivering opinions worse than any reviewer’s. It took me weeks to silence the voice and play normally again.
In popular culture, music lessons are often linked with psychological torment. People apparently love stories about performing-arts teachers who drive students mad, breaking their spirits with pitiless exactitude. There’s David Helfgott in “Shine,” Isabelle Huppert’s sadomasochistic turn in “The Piano Teacher,” the sneering Juilliard judges for whom Julia Stiles auditions to redeem her mother’s death in “Save the Last Dance.” (I can testify that the behavior of the judges at my real-life Juilliard audition was even meaner and funnier.) I’ve often rolled my eyes at the music-lesson clichés of movies: the mind games and power plays, the teacher with the quaint European accent who says, “You will never make it, you are not a real musician,” in order to get you to work even harder. But as the notebook recalled memories of lessons I’d had—both as a child and later, once the piano became my life—I wondered if my story was all that different.
—”Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Life in Piano Lessons,” New Yorker, 4/8/13