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For classical pianist Jeremy Denk, life is like a series of music lessons

Denk talks about what he learned from his teachers, and his failures, frustrations and pivotal moments as an artist. His new memoir is Every Good Boy Does Fine. Originally broadcast March 21, 2022.

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Other segments from the episode on April 22, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 22, 2022: Interview with Jeremy Dent; Review of documentary 'Navalny'; tribute to Charles Mingus.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Today we're rebroadcasting Terry's interview with pianist Jeremy Denk. When it aired originally in March, it was preempted on many stations by coverage of the Supreme Court nomination hearings of Ketanji Brown Jackson. Here's Terry.


TERRY GROSS: My guest is pianist Jeremy Denk. If you've ever taken music lessons or if you appreciate the insights musicians share about the music they play, I think you'll enjoy what he has to say. He's an acclaimed classical pianist who's also a fine writer with a gift for explaining the structure of the pieces he performs and what makes them technically and emotionally exciting. He's written a new memoir called "Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, In Music Lessons." The title refers to a phrase children learn when they first start to read music to help them memorize the notes on the five lines of the treble clef. Those notes, E-G-B-D-F, correspond to the first letter of each word in every good boy does fine. The book is about how he learned to play, the teachers who shaped him and what it was like to be a classical prodigy in a world where few kids cared about classical music and some truly hated it.

Denk received a MacArthur Fellowship, aka the genius award, and the Avery Fisher Prize. His recording of the "Goldberg Variations" reached No. 1 on the Billboard classical chart. His album of compositions by Beethoven and Ligeti was named one of the best discs of the year by The New Yorker, NPR and The Washington Post. In The New York Times, music critic Steve Smith wrote that Denk is a pianist you want to hear, no matter what he performs and that his interpretations conveyed the sense of composers grappling with the ineffable, inventing new vocabulary to express the inexpressible.

Jeremy Denk, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's such a pleasure to have you back on our show. You have a really interesting album from a couple of years ago in which you play piano music from 1300 to 2000. So the album is aptly called "c.1300-c.2000" (laughter). So I want to start with a Bach piece from that album. This is Bach's "Chromatic Fantasy And Fugue In D Minor" (ph). Can you just say a little bit about why you love this piece and why you chose it for this album?

JEREMY DENK: You know, I love all the pieces of Bach where you get a taste of him maybe improvising and his virtuosity, both as a composer, of course, you know, but as a performer, the sense of touching the keyboard at the beginning, playing some scales to sort of hear how it sounds, you know, hearing how the harmonies play against each other and then beginning to explore the world of harmony bit by bit, you know? And it's called "Chromatic Fantasy" because it explores not just the notes of the normal D minor scale but all the naughty notes in between, you know? And he really makes a point of visiting the weirdest chords that he can and trying to make harmonic sense of them, something he loved doing. So, yeah, I guess I feel like I'm slightly channeling Bach a little bit when you play this piece, the demonic elements of Bach and then the really sublime parts of him, too.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is Jeremy Denk at the piano.


GROSS: That was Jeremy Denk playing the "Bach: Chromatic Fantasia And Fugue In D Minor." So, Jeremy, that's why you have to learn to play scales, right? That's where all (laughter)... -

DENK: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...All of your work, like, learning scales, learning scales, playing them over, over and over again really pays off because you can just - that is such a complicated piece. But it's built on scales.

DENK: It's built on scales. And then there's all these kind of whorls and curls and curlicues and, you know, kind of devilish turns within the scales. But, yes, there was a reason why you had to suffer all those years of piano lessons.

GROSS: Your book is so much about piano lessons. Did you hate it when you had to spend hours and hours earlier in your life playing scales and when - like, some of your teachers didn't even want to play music with you, you know, have you play music for them until you mastered, like, the basics, the scales.

DENK: Yeah, my teacher when I was in my, you know, early teens - we spent summers basically only on technique with very little music, right? And those were his moments to sort of have me under his control and build a foundation. And I admit, I didn't love those summers, although I would probably not be a pianist without them. I think one of the real problems when you're practicing, at least for me when I was a kid, is you just don't know what the point of all that time is. You repeat something over and over, you know, hundreds of times. And at a certain point, there's a futility, and you're not sure what you're doing, what you're changing, what the job is you're really engaged in. And that's one of the hardest tasks for a teacher, I think, is to make it clear to the student what practicing is about.

GROSS: How did they make it clear to you in a meaningful way?

DENK: Well, a lot of it, of course, is like you would do with a tennis coach - right? - or whatever. You have to pay attention to physical changes that you have to make. And you have to kind of try to build certain physical habits and get rid of others. And lately, I've come up with a little bit of a formula that I use, which is every time you try to play something again, you explain to yourself what the physical changes you're going to make to make it better the next time. And that slows you down.

GROSS: Physical, like in your hands?

DENK: Yeah. Are you going to raise your thumb more? Are you going to bring your second finger down more slowly? Are you going to use your wrist more? Are you going to engage the arm? You know, it could be a lot of different things. But, for me, anyway, it - often it - you really have to remember the role of the body in making the music sing.

GROSS: In the piece that we heard - the Bach piece - it's a very complicated piece. You're playing lots of notes in each hand at a rapid speed. And you also have to breathe. And, you know, speaking for myself, when I'm doing something really complicated, I don't think I actually breathe (laughter). Or if I do breathe, it's really shallow breathing. Did you have to learn how to breathe while playing?

DENK: Yeah. Most definitely, I did. And I still do. And one of the beautiful things that Sebok explained that I maybe didn't put in the book - my teacher, Gyorgy Sebok, in Bloomington - was that there is a beautiful parallel between, you know, breathing with your lungs, as we all do and must do, and the kind of breathing of the muscles in the act of piano playing, you know, releasing your wrist or elbow or whatever it is. And he would often show, you know, his arms like a bellows kind of, allowing the sound to blossom because you let the muscles release the energy that you put into the piano. And that is a lesson that I keep having to teach myself, especially, you know, in nervous situations 'cause your body begins to breathe less - right? - by the nature of adrenaline - or breathe differently. And that's a whole other study to figure out how to cope with that in front of a public.

GROSS: So you mentioned your teacher, Gyorgy Sebok, who was your teacher when you were at Oberlin in your final year there. And he was a pianist from Hungary who'd performed with the top musicians and conductors and would tell you stories about them. What did he teach you about breathing? - 'cause he talked to you about different composers' breaths. I'm not really sure what that means. What did that mean to you?

DENK: Well, each - for him, it was very important that each composer kind of spoke his or her own language. And those languages relied on different kinds of breaths. For example, Bach, you know, loves to elide. He loves to create these kind of endless rivers of notes, you know? And there are very few rests in Bach. But by the time you get to Mozart, you know, 70 years later or whatever, almost everything is about little clipped phrases with tiny commas and punctuation between them, right? And the way that you hear those little silences and the way that you think about them often change in character from one thing to another - you know, from the imperious Count or whatever, to the, you know, pleading Susanna or whatever.

The way that you thought about the punctuation changed everything, yeah? And so you had to think about the breaths between the phrases as much as anything else 'cause they indicated when you changed from one person to another, in a way. And Schumann breathes quite differently. You know, he's full of this ardent romantic (laughter), you know, often palpitating, you know, incredibly intense music. And you have to figure out how to find repose within his, you know, romantic frenzy.

GROSS: So I want to play another piece. And this piece earlier than the Bach piece that we heard. And this is by Henry Purcell. It's called "Ground In C Minor." It's very beautiful. And it's much more spare than the Bach that we heard. Can you talk about this piece and what it represents in music history and why you love it?

DENK: Well, I think, first of all, it's beautiful on its own account, right (laughter)? And I was creating a program sort of chaining, you know, musical style from the earliest, you know, medieval times, classical - Western classical musical style, that is. And I was interested in this sort of proto-baroque time, you know, sort of what we consider to be tonality and harmony beginning to evolve out of a totally different language. And this piece seemed to me a kind of wonderful, plaintive representation of that, and also the sort of joy of the ground bass. I was interested in the (laughter) - you know, this sort of walking bass in relation to some earlier madrigal that I had played on the album. So I don't know if that explains your - it - I think partly I chose it just because I love it also.

GROSS: Yeah. It's beautiful. So this is Henry Purcell's "Ground In C Minor" performed by my guest, Jeremy Denk.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jeremy Denk, the great pianist who has written a new memoir called "Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, In Music Lessons."

Let's talk about your parents and your early lessons. Your mother would be in another room kind of hollering out (laughter) her critique of your playing. You're not the only - people far less talented than you (laughter) experience that, too. So tell us what your mother would yell out to you while you were practicing.

DENK: Well, for her, there was a two-tier grading system. Either the music danced, or it didn't dance, you know? So I'd be there in the middle of, you know, practicing something probably for the 10th time and completely, you know, losing interest in whatever piece I was playing. And she'd, like - it's not dancing. It's not dancing. And she'd be in the kitchen, you know, smoking or whatever. And this was, you know, as you can imagine, completely infuriating to me, you know? And I thought often to myself, well, why don't you come here and play it if it - if you want it to be better? - or stuff like that, right? Unfortunately, I think my mom's instincts were often reasonably good for someone who had no real music education. But she knew when the music was charming and when it was not.

GROSS: While we're talking about your parents' feedback, what did your father have to say about your music when you were young?

DENK: Well, my father, he'd - both of them loved music, you know? He always wanted me to play this one Bach chorale - one very sad Bach chorale. He - it was called "Come, Sweet Death." And he kept begging me, you know, every time he came home from work. Jeremy, play "Come, Sweet Death." And I would often want to play it a little bit - I was often impatient and just wanted to play it and get it over with. And he's like, no, no, with feeling. But he didn't want to impose so much in the details of my practicing. He just wanted me to practice more all the time. And he wanted to be sure that I was being responsible to my talent, you know, that that was the most important thing in, you know, how I spent my time and how I - if I had a gift, I had to devote work. And so I always had the - you know, he was a very - you know, both of them were very work-ethic parents, you know?

GROSS: You call Beethoven your nemesis when you were (laughter) - when you were learning to play. Why was he your nemesis?

DENK: Well, Beethoven's very hard, you know? (Laughter) I was pretty good up through the "Pathetique" sonata, which, you know, I played when I was, whatever, 13, 14. And then I came to the "Waldstein." And, you know, the "Waldstein," I think most pianists would say, is about as hard as anything that any pianist would have to play. And I didn't really appreciate that. You know, I didn't realize at 15 that I'd come to the - you know, the top of Mount Everest, and I was (laughter) trying to climb it without any crampons or whatever. So, you know, I kept bashing my head against the wall of all the impossible things in that piece. And it wasn't until really Sebok, you know, many years later, and he began to show me, you know, what there was to love about Beethoven and to show me how to also use my body better to surmount some of these obstacles, you know, not to make mountains out of mole hills.

GROSS: Well, you have a Beethoven piece, the "Piano Sonata No. 32 In C Minor" on your album of 700 years of music. How would you rate that? And it's a beautiful piece. It's a very percussive and emotional piece. But how would you rate it in terms of Beethoven being your nemesis? Is this a nemesis kind of piece, or is this a relatively easy one for you?

DENK: (Laughter) I've played it a lot. It still has some places that are a little nemesis for me because they're very awkward. And I think Beethoven's somewhat specialized in awkward. And that particular piece is a kind of a limit piece for him. It's his last sonata. He's reached the end of the line. And in a way, the first movement of that sonata is about impossibility, about music that can no longer be written, styles that don't quite mix together. And it's constantly searching for something that it never quite finds. So I think the difficulty, the technical difficulty, luckily in this case, matches up with the sense of what the music is supposed to feel like, whereas in the "Waldstein," you know, in the last movement of the "Waldstein," you're supposed to create this unbelievable, serene, glorious sense of unfolding, you know? And technical struggle is not really useful to the musical expression (laughter).

GROSS: What do you love about this "Piano Sonata In C Minor"?

DENK: Partly also that - it says it's in C minor, but it's really in C minor, then it becomes a C major for the second two-thirds of itself. And, you know, it's like a piece where you have a problem in the first movement and its solution in the second movement. And the solution is so far removed - you know, this unbelievable unfolding of time that happens in the second movement, the patient and bizarre unfolding and the sense of the kind of space around the notes and, you know? He never - I don't think he ever again wrote anything quite as amazing as - for me, you know - as that, in terms of a vision of what piano music could be.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is Jeremy Denk at the piano playing Beethoven's "Piano Sonata No. 32 In C Minor."


DAVIES: That's Jeremy Denk at the piano from his album "c.1300-c.2000" - 700 years of music. His new memoir is called "Every Good Boy Does Fine." We'll hear more of his interview with Terry after a break. Also, John Powers reviews the new CNN documentary "Navalny" about the Russian dissident who was nearly murdered and is now in prison. And Kevin Whitehead pays tribute to Charles Mingus on the 100th anniversary of his birth. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with pianist Jeremy Denk, who is an award-winning pianist, has played with the top orchestras and performers around the world. And he's also a great writer. And he's been published in The New Yorker. He has a blog. And now he has a new memoir, which is called "Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, In Music Lessons." And it's from his childhood through the age of around 26, when he was studying piano.

The first piano you had was from a burlesque house in Atlantic City. Can you describe the piano and how your family ended up owning it?

DENK: Of course. Actually, my first piano was my mom's heirloom. You know, it was, like, a little brown spinet, you know, that just sat in the corner of our den for many years. And that's what I started on for the first year. But then - you're right. My teacher - my new teacher, Lillian Livingston, who was an amazing and serious teacher in New Jersey with lots of kids - she said to my parents that I had to have a better instrument. So Lillian put my parents in touch with some piano technician, and he had been rebuilding (laughter) this piano that he found, that he got, you know, basically for free from a burlesque house in Atlantic City. And it was covered with graffiti - filthy graffiti, honestly.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DENK: It had been (laughter) carved and, you know - various letters - R.F. loves T.K. or whatever and then ladies like it and some other things that I probably shouldn't say on the air. And also, it didn't have wheels, you know? It just was on these, like, little blocks that were - that he'd built to sort of keep the piano in place. So once you got the piano in a place in the house, there was no moving it, you know? So it came into the middle of the den, more or less disrupting the entire TV-watching area. And that was how I practiced, you know, from age 6 or 7 on - as in the middle of everyone's lives on this hideous instrument.

GROSS: You write about something called key speed. And you say it's the most important and infuriatingly subtle variable of piano playing. I don't know what it is. What is it?

DENK: The speed at which your finger enters the key. And it's even more complicated than that because most often - right? - you don't enter at a uniform speed. You're either speeding up or slowing down, right? And as Sebok said at one point or another, every piano, no matter the most dismal piano, if you find the right key speed, it has a beautiful voice, a beautiful singing voice in it. And you can find it. It's such a fascinating and beautiful part of piano playing, is you have this big machine in front of you, which seems completely unyielding and (laughter) awkward and hard to move and mechanical, in many ways. And yet, it responds if you caress it a certain way or just a little bit more urgently, or you play as if you're - as if the key was a hot potato and you want to drop it, you know? All these things create vastly different sounds and feelings, you know? And if I - you know, key speed sounds like a really abstract thing. But I think it's one of the really important parts of piano playing. And varying the speed with which you play into the key is one of our best tools for telling a story as a musician, for shaping a melody, for example, or anything, you know?

GROSS: You've had so many different teachers over the years. And some of them seem more mean, and some of them seemed more warm in their approach. What were you most receptive to? Like, what kind of feedback did you find helpful, and what kind of feedback did you find just kind of intolerable and would maybe even make you cry?

DENK: You know, I think I needed different kinds of teachers at different points in my life. I think, you know, one of the reason that I had such difficulty - one of the reasons I had such difficulty with, you know, my teacher at Oberlin when I got there, Joseph Schwartz, who was a wonderful teacher and a wonderful pianist - still is - he was so much like my father in many ways, you know? He was a little bit - you know, he didn't want to go overboard emotionally. He didn't want to micromanage. Every so often, he would lose his patience. And those moments, I think they resonated so much from my past that I began to tune Joseph out.

And definitely even by the, you know, middle of my sophomore year, I barely remember my lessons with him as if there was something, you know, deliberate in my mind that I was kind of - and I had met all these other teachers, you know, like I said, Norman Fischer. And Norman was the, you know, diametric opposite of Joe. He was the ultimate kind of hugger and overtalker. And he wanted to go wild with every musical gesture and really get into the nitty-gritty of every single thing, you know? And he always wanted more, more, more - more character, more involvement, right? And that was the kind of teaching that I desperately needed. He was the first teacher in a way that encouraged me to rely on my own emotional life for interpreting.

GROSS: Is he the teacher who told you to think about the saddest moment in your life for one piece?

DENK: That's right. We were playing a Beethoven cello sonata, some movement, and we weren't able to play it together. And he said to me, Jeremy, think of the saddest thing that you've ever felt in your life. But don't - he said, don't tell anyone. Don't say it. Just hold it in your mind. And then play the music as if that sadness was a baby you don't want to wake, you know. That's a pretty amazing image, actually, when I think about it. And indeed, it helped me to play at this slow, desperate tempo and to keep the spell. And then, of course, I put it in the book as - I was in tears then. Even now talking about it, I find it emotional to remember him saying that to me.

GROSS: It sounds like the kind of advice you'd give an actor.

DENK: He was very much an actor - yeah, like, a method actor kind of teacher, and I think still is, you know? He's a very active teacher to this day. And he was way too much in a way. He kind of violated my sense of dignity and privacy at the piano, which I think is what I needed.

GROSS: How did he violate it?

DENK: Well, he'd get up in your face, you know, just, like, scream in your face, you know? - more. Or he would just, like, give you this demonic expression when you were trying to play a really difficult passage. And that - there I was trying to nail all the notes of the difficult passage, whereas what his face was telling me was just let loose, you know? Stop trying to be the good boy, the teacher's pet, and start trying to create some kind of great emotional drama here.

GROSS: Well, it's really been a pleasure to talk with you. And I thank you very much for coming back to our show and for your music.

DENK: Thank you, Terry, what a pleasure.

GROSS: We should end with some Mozart. You have an album of Mozart. That's your most recent album. Do you want to just choose a passage that you especially love?

DENK: I think I'd choose the sort of middle of the last movement of 503. This is one of the - for me, one of the most beautiful passages that Mozart ever wrote, the middle of the rondo of his concerto in C major, 503. And it's basically a love sextet between the piano and the winds with a simple melody, just "Three Blind Mice" - three blind mice - over and over again but with amazing and ravishing harmonies.

GROSS: Thank you.


DAVIES: That's Jeremy Denk at the piano from his album "c.1300-c.2000" - 700 years of music. His new memoir is called "Every Good Boy Does Fine." Terry spoke with him last month, but the interview was preempted on many stations for coverage of the confirmation hearings for Ketanji Brown Jackson. Coming up, John Powers reviews the new CNN documentary "Navalny" about the Russian dissident who was nearly murdered and is in prison now. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID ROSE'S "LIKE YOUNG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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