My Favorite Mistake: Pianist Jeremy Denk

Article excerpt

Byline: Jeremy Denk

On his ill-fated lab experiment.

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. …