Mary Woodward Preview

Every Good Boy Does Fine, Holy Trinity Church, Haddington, Review:

**** (4 stars)

Lammermuir Festival

Jeremy Denk has been delighting audiences at this and previous years’ Lammermuir festivals with his piano playing – which I have to confess to having missed.  This year, in addition to playing in several concerts, he was in conversation with James Waters, co-director of the festival, about his book Every Good Boy Does Fine.

The title is an amendment of the phrase many of us will have had drilled into us in music lessons – Every Good Boy Deserves Favour [or Football, or Fun] – which helps you remember EGBDF – the names of the notes that sit on the lines of the treble stave in music.  I taught piano and other instruments for many years before I moved to Edinburgh, and as the blurb for the event promised “a fraught love letter to the act of teaching”, I thought I should go and listen.

The audience was exhorted not to leave any spaces beside them in Holy Trinity Church, as the event was a sellout – so I found myself sitting next to another singleton.  Polite conversation revealed that he too was a music teacher, and as the talk progressed, we found ourselves laughing in wry recognition of some of the things Jeremy Denk was saying about music and music teaching.  The whole talk was laced with humour, but there was also a profound understanding of music and an ability to convey this understanding in a way that did not require deep technical/ musical knowledge.

Prompted by questions from James Waters, Jeremy Denk talked about how he came to write his book; why he had such an unusually large number of piano teachers during his years at college, and which teachers had the greatest impact on him.   He touched lightly on some deeply personal matters and how these affected his relationships with his teachers.  Almost in passing he commented on the importance of teachers but also their ‘irrelevance’ – sometimes only one or two small things they say stick with you – and the harm that can be caused by remarks which the teacher has no idea are hurtful.

We heard three passages from his book.  A fascinating one on harmony showed how it can be used to get you from A to B in a piece of music straightforwardly or by an extremely circuitous route, superbly illustrated with fragments of the final fugue from J S Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier and the opening of Scott Joplin’s Heliotrope Rag.  One on rhythm looked at counting [the bane of many young musicians’ lives!] and how metronomically correct playing can produce zombie-like music – it’s the microscopic deviations from exactitude that give music its life and meaning.

There was much laughter during these two extracts, and even more when, at James Waters’ request, we heard about how and why James Denk joined his school orchestra at the age of thirteen, about the incredible woman who conducted the orchestra, and how playing the viola in the orchestra began his love affair with the ‘inner voices’ in music – the musical lines that may not stand out as obvious melodies but which interweave with the upper melodies and provide the richness of harmony – thus bringing us neatly back to our starting point and the inner voices in Bach’s fugues.

A brief Q&A session ended the session.  The audience was obviously delighted to spend time with Jeremy Denk who is a firm favourite with regular attenders at the Lammermuir festival.  I was delighted to have spent time with an engaging, articulate musician who effortlessly demonstrated his knowledge and passion for the music he plays in a book which is very well-written, informative, and enjoyable. 

Every Good Boy Does Fine, Holy Trinity Church, Haddington, Run Ended

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