Buried in my Pocket was an article from the New Yorker by concert pianist Jeremy Denk called Every Good Boy Does Fine. Besides being a great musician, Jeremy is a very talented, expressive writer and I loved this piece. In it, he talks a lot about his life-long struggle between honing the technical aspects of his craft and, at the same time, not letting the quest for technical perfection hinder his pursuit of true artistry — which only comes when you set yourself free of the soul-crushing pursuit of technical perfection and allow yourself to…play.
It’s a dilemma that’s familiar to anyone that practices a craft: like law, piano or golf. I work hard to put in my practice time, to be technically proficient…but do my best work when I let go a little bit. And I’m more conscious of the balance now. Maybe it’s no surprise that I’ve done some of my best legal writing with classical piano music playing in the background.
My favorite passage from the piece was this one:
Learning to play the piano is learning to reason with your muscles. One of the recurring story lines of my first years with Leland was learning how to cross my thumb smoothly under the rest of my hand in scales and arpeggios. He devised a symmetrical, synchronous, soul-destroying exercise for this, in which the right and left thumbs reached under the other fingers, crablike, for ever more distant notes. Exercises like this are crucial and yet seem intended to quell any natural enthusiasm for music, or possibly even for life. As you deal with thumb-crossings, or fingerings for the F-sharp-minor scale, or chromatic scales in double thirds, it is hard to accept that these will eventually allow you to probe eternity in the final movement of Beethoven’s last sonata. Imagine that you are scrubbing the grout in your bathroom and are told that removing every last particle of mildew will somehow enable you to deliver the Gettysburg Address.