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Publisher's Summary

A beautifully written, witty memoir that is also an immersive exploration of classical music - its power, its meanings, and what it can teach us about ourselves - from the MacArthur "Genius" Grant-winning pianist

“Jeremy Denk has written a love letter to the music, and especially to the music teachers, in his life.” (Conrad Tao, pianist and composer)

In Every Good Boy Does Fine, renowned pianist Jeremy Denk traces an implausible journey. His life is already a little tough as a precocious, temperamental six-year-old piano prodigy in New Jersey, and then a family meltdown forces a move to New Mexico. There, Denk must please a new taskmaster, an embittered but devoted professor, while navigating junior high school. At 16, he escapes to college in Ohio, only to encounter a bewildering new cast of music teachers, both kind and cruel. After many humiliations and a few triumphs, he ultimately finds his way as a world-touring pianist, a MacArthur “Genius,” and a frequent performer at Carnegie Hall.

Many classical music memoirs focus on famous musicians and professional accomplishments, but this book focuses on the everyday: neighborhood teacher, high school orchestra, local conductor. There are few writers capable of so deeply illuminating the trials of artistic practice - hours of daily repetition, mystifying advice, pressure from parents and teachers. But under all this struggle is a love letter to the act of teaching.

In lively, endlessly imaginative prose, Denk dives deeply into the pieces and composers that have shaped him - Bach, Mozart, and Brahms, among others - and offers lessons on melody, harmony, and rhythm. How do melodies work? Why is harmony such a mystery to most people? Why are teachers so obsessed with the metronome?

In Every Good Boy Does Fine, Denk shares the most meaningful lessons of his life, and tries to repay a debt to his teachers. He also reminds us that we must never stop asking questions about music and its purposes: consolation, an armor against disillusionment, pure pleasure, a diversion, a refuge, and a vehicle for empathy.

©2022 Jeremy Denk (P)2022 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

“This one-of-a-kind musical autobiography by one of our most brilliant and perceptive classical musicians is part illumination of the essence of the musical discourse and part deeply personal, sometimes painful, sometimes hilarious confession of the long and tortuous road to maturity and mastery of a sublime art. Denk’s teachers, alternately inspiring, exasperating, demanding, adoring, and deploring, are evoked in delicious detail in a book that is as sophisticated as a Bach fugue and as American as Tater Tots and Kmart.” - John Adams, composer

“A boy tumbles into manhood while learning classical piano in this raucous coming-of-age memoir . . . Denk’s sparkling prose, frankness, and humor make for an indelible portrait of the musician as a bewildered kid.” - Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Among the many virtues of this funny and moving book - its frankness, its generous preservation of wisdom from mentors past, its breathtaking insights about how and why music affects us - one stands out above the rest: It makes me want to practice.” - Conrad Tao, pianist and composer

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  • 04-02-22

Read by Denk, with music to illustrate examples

This note is specifically about the audiobook version. It has many advantages over the print version, and is worthy of consideration even for those who have read the book, especially for those that are big Jeremy Denk fans.

The first major bonus is the fact that it is read by Denk himself. His reading imparts a wonderful live quality to the narration; the personal elements of his life story leap to life. The descriptions of people and events have a vividness that would be impossible to convey even with a very talented and musically-inclined voice actor. One memorable example comes in the “More Europeans!” chapter, when Denk discusses the singing voice of the legendary cellist Janos Starker. It’s one thing to describe it as “a duck forced to quack while you squeezed it in a vice”, and another thing to hear Denk imitate it.

The second bonus is that the audio book comes with numerous snippets of Denk’s piano playing to illustrate the points he’s making. Reading about music is a bit like a watching an emotionally-complex movie dialogue with subtitles and no sound. You get the gist, but there’s so much meaning lost if you aren’t able to follow the sound. The examples, which range from demonstrating his childhood Dohnanyi finger exercises to the discussions of harmony in a Bach Fugue. One only wishes they could incorporate corresponding music for every episode discussed in the book (e.g. in the discussion of Nina Simone), but that would clearly be impracticable.

As for the content of book, I can’t add more than what has already been written by Corina da Fonseca-Wollheim (NY Times), David Weininger (Boston Globe), and especially Simon Callow (NY Review of Books). If you want to know what this book is about, start with those reviews.

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Musical examples make this shine

I started reading the book but then was told that the audiobook had musical examples, which completely changed the reading / listening experience.

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Wonderful

This is an absolutely wonderful book and a terrific read by the author I recommend it for any musician and for those who love music with the understanding that a little bit of knowledge of music will help you appreciate the book that much more than if you had not that even cursory introduction to the classical side of music performance

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Good but not great

I read this on the recommendation of a friend. I loved the book initially. It felt a little bogged down in the middle at times. Then, I picked up again towards the end. The ending feels a bit unresolved though. The writing is superb. Such beautiful descriptions of both life and music. But, at times it was a little boring in the details of it all. Still, I’m glad I read it.

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The most beautiful audiobook I've listened to

Jeremy Denk has written a heartfelt, deeply thought through autobiography. He has an amazing memory of events in the past along his musical journey. When he describes those events - music lessons, a car journey or a conversation - you feel you are there back in time.

Jeremy Denk describes the lessons he learns in his musical training from the elementary to the advanced. He was told "you need to count" and "don't use the pedal as a crutch", which most students can relate to.Then there are the more advanced like "Feel like you are reaching deep past the bottom of the key".

He also describes how he felt at different points. You feel his pain when a teacher is mean for no apparent reason, or he laps up the rare wholehearted praise from another faculty member. He is also refreshingly open about his own shortcomings, such as when he disregarded advice about small muscles to his own detriment because it came from the wife of a faculty.

The book has interludes with music lessons from the author on harmony, melody and rhythm. These are enjoyable, similar to attending a masterclass.

While the book itself is great, the audiobook brings on new dimensions. Jeremy Denk is a fantastic narrator and he does some amazing things like hum a phrase, describe a Hungarian accent or talk like some of his teachers. The piano music lets you hear what he is describing and feel the mood in pieces like the Beethoven Waldstein. I would give the performance a 6 if I could. I wish more audiobooks would include relevant music.

I would recommend this book for all piano students and teachers and perhaps other classical musicians too.

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So similar it’s scary

I’ve so far only heard Jeremy once, a few years back at UMD, and (apart from a little post-concert meet-and-greet) don’t know him personally, but I almost feel like we’re the same person after listening to this. From the early-on treacherous ability to sight-read everything really well to the (comparatively) late realization of, hey, you have a body too (and subsequent allowance of homosexual experiences), I was relating so hard to so much of this. Add to that his incredible gift for non-pretentiously philosophizing and wondering out loud about various aspects of music and life, and you have a must-listen for all musicians and even a good portion of the general public. The musical examples are beautifully chosen, and there is very little “getting into the weeds” about cerebral music stuff. Thanks, Jeremy, for this love-letter to an art form that entrances so many of us. (And, for what it’s worth, I feel like my own teacher—Leon Fleisher, whom I was happy to hear you mention a couple times—would have enjoyed it, too.)

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Exemplary Audiobook!

Denk is a fine writer and I was ambivalent about choosing the audiobook version of this memoir. I went with this version because Denk himself is the reader and I knew he had an engaging voice. I didn't know beforehand that the audio version contains brief illustrative musical passages from some of the works he discusses. They're brilliantly done, not overdone, and really add richness to the stories he tells. His gift for metaphor and simile illuminate parts of the interior of his great talent.

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A complete pleasure

The best book on music by a musician I have ever read. Honest and clear. Bridges the gap between performing virtuoso and ordinary music lover. Imparts major insights into the importance of the student teacher relationship with humor, sensitivity and insight. The Superb writing is a bonus.

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Fantastic on audio

I appreciate this because of my love for music and as a piano/flute teacher. Jeremy Denk narrates this himself and seems to have put his heart and soul into not only his music, but the writing, telling and living of it and the music that surrounds us … if we only make the connection.

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Beautiful story told from the heart

Jeremy Denk is a famous pianist who worked hard to get where he is now. He didn't have everything handed to him and not everyone fawned all over him as one would imagine with a pianist of his caliber. He never gave up and he tells not only his story but the stories in the music he plays. He delves into the music underneath the notes on the page--the part nobody notices but when they do, it makes the music all the more magical.

Told in his own voice, Denk brings a personal touch to the book--a credibility that only he could bring by narrating it himself. I didn't want to stop listening and I was sad when it ended.