In late September, the MacArthur Foundation announced that Jeremy Denk (D.M.A. ’01, piano) was one of the winners of its annual “genius” fellowships: no-strings-attached grants of $625,000 over five years. Denk—who performs, teaches, and blogs, and is now writing a book for Random House based on his April New Yorker article "Every Good Boy Deserves Favor"—was cited for “enlivening the musical experience for amateurs and aficionados alike through his eloquence with notes and words.” He gave The Journal some insights into how Juilliard helped prepare him for this momentous honor—and also gave some advice to current students.
Many things happened at Juilliard that, in retrospect, prepared the way. First and foremost, my lessons with Herbert Stessin, who patiently showed me tips and tricks he had discovered from decades of listening, and helped me to refine my sense of sound, my connections between melody notes. He was as anxious as I was for me to find my musical way and encouraged my unusual repertoire enthusiasms. I also remember fondly my chamber music coachings with violinist Robert Mann, a great thinker about music, and a couple interesting (to say the least) lessons with cellist Harvey Shapiro, who taught me some important things about rubato.
As far as the writing goes, there was a wonderful Music Writing class with David Hamilton and, for my doctoral document, I had a generous and patient advisor in L. Michael Griffel. I needed patience, because I wrote this unusual manifesto-like thing, an “alternative textbook” for teaching form and analysis to undergrads. I had this idea (still do!) that the way form is taught is inherently uncreative, that the fundamental unit of form is a verb, whereas we usually teach a silly profusion of nouns, which tends to short-circuit actually seeing the beautiful relationships in a musical score. One member of my doctoral committee was not a big fan of what I wrote. He actually wrote “UGH!” on the margins of my first draft. But I persisted, and my advisor helped us all work through it. I think there were some seeds of my future blogging in that presumptuous project!
My advice for current students? Don’t be cynical. Music is between the notes. Lobby the administration for practice rooms with windows.