Pianist Jeremy Denk's Favorite Mistake: Ditching Science

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Jeremy Denk. Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times-Contour by Getty Images

My mistakes are always about doing too much rather than too little. I want it all, in my nerdy way. Some people want to go backpacking across Europe, some want to go yachting in the Riviera, but my version of “having it all” was going to Oberlin a bit young and pursuing degrees in chemistry and piano. A double degree is a serious mistake if you need to spend all day practicing, but my parents fretted about the life of a musician, and for the first and last time, I listened to them.

Between two degrees, 16- year-old angst, and neurotic dating experiences, I had my hands ridiculously full, but was too immersed to realize it. So my junior year, I made a compounding mistake: I agreed to be a teaching assistant, mentoring freshmen in an introductory lab course. Now, in the lab, there are certain virtues: consistency, repeatability, calm precision. These things are important at the piano too! In retrospect, I realize I kept trying to bring insights from my piano lessons into the laboratory. I kept wanting to give more “inspirational” advice—could you light your Bunsen burner with a bit more attitude, with passion? I loved titrations, in which you slowly drip one thing into another and at some magic tipping point the reaction occurs. Somehow the rhythm of the dripping was important to me, hypnotic, better than a metronome; entranced, I’d forget the point of the experiment and let the students drip past the mark. I kept cracking chemistry jokes (the worst of all jokes) and trying to create a devil-may-care atmosphere of improvisation. But devil-may-care is not a lab attitude. There was everyone, serious in their goggles, trying to get good grades, and I was trying to ruin it for everyone by making it musical.

I didn’t do very well in my own lab that year. There was the incident of briefly setting my sweater on fire. It was hard not to notice that by the time I triumphantly finished washing my labware, everyone else seemed to be already done with the whole experiment—and my test tubes still looked none too clean. Finally, one day we were assigned a very precise titration, looking for an unbelievably accurate result. All the results were posted a week later, a beautiful cluster of dots scattered around the correct answer, with one dot way off in the distance. In fact, the professor had to add two extra sheets of graph paper to get this dot to fit—he had to tape together this preposterous thing that took up the whole bulletin board. And, I realized, that one dot was me.

I had always been a nauseating teacher’s pet, obsessed with grades, but amazingly I didn’t care one bit about this spectacularly wrong answer; I was liberated by my lonely dot. It was time to be a pianist, not a chemist or a doctor. In music, of course, you can play wrong notes, make bad phrasing decisions, but sometimes the wrongest note played with conviction is better than the right one, and there are an infinite number of right answers, some way off in the distance. I knew I wouldn’t cure cancer or anything, but I might discover some beautiful way of playing something that no one else had found.

Career Arc

1989

Decides not to pursue chemistry (but earns a double degree at Oberlin).

1998

Receives the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant.

2005

Launches his blog, Think Denk, about musical and other observations.

2011

Makes his debut at the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Gustavo Dudamel.

2012

Releases latest album, Ligeti/Beethoven, on Nonesuch Records.

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