8 memoirs on the journey to becoming a classical musician



A big part of my life before turning to writing was my immersion in classical music. I trained to become a professional violist and played in orchestras and chamber music groups for years. Although I found myself on a different professional path, classical music permeates my writing and provides the soundtrack to my prose.

My first novel, three muses, is a love story between a ballerina and a Holocaust survivor. Song, Discipline and Memory are the muses that frame the book. John survives the Holocaust by singing for the commander who murdered his family. He falls in love with a prima ballerina, Katya Symanova. Unbeknownst to John, Katya is entangled in an abusive creative partnership with her choreographer. John and Katya’s path to each other is rocky and complicated.

The struggle to become an artist is so much about discipline and rigor. Intense self-criticism is a necessity but can also be a crippling obstacle. Self-doubt is endemic. The memoir below chronicles the authors’ journey to music, what makes them so committed, how they express their love for it, and what happens behind the scenes. Moving in their authenticity, these writers describe on the page the emotional conflicts that a life in music generates.

Building a Nervous System: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson

Margo Jefferson is a brilliant cultural critic who has written forr the New York Times for many years. As a black woman who grew up privileged in Chicago, she wrote two searing memoirs about how racism interferes and infects her career. In this book, the second of two, Jefferson connects his own rigorous classical piano training with prominent black musicians. His riff on Ella Fitzgerald is both horrifying for the bigotry Fitzgerald suffered and celebrating Fitzgerald’s dignity and prodigious gifts. Writing in an experimental style to emphasize his wounds and observations, Jefferson’s book is a disturbing account of the reality of racism in America.

Uncommon measure: a journey through music, performance and the science of time by Natalie Hodges

Early writer Natalie Hodges trained as a concert violinist with all the pressures that entailed, including performance “failures.” As she graduates from Harvard, she begins to examine the life she has chosen. In these unusual memoirs, Hodges steps in and out of the science of time to examine his life in music: “Music itself embodies time, shaping our sense of its passage through rhythm and harmony, melody and the form.

Of particular interest is his adventure in learning improvisation, a skill essential to jazz, rock and many other forms of music, but absent from classical training. With carefully crafted lyricism, Hodges provides music history and mature insight, particularly on how she wants to take care of her body and soul.

Every Good Boy Is Fine: A Love Story, In Music Lessons by Jeremy Denk

Jeremy Denk is an insightful and uplifting concert pianist and writer. This memoir deconstructs the trajectory of his life, from growing up in a dysfunctional home with parents who only want him to become a professional pianist, to how he survived it – by conforming and moving on. through the exhausting circuit of competition to make themselves known. . Los Alamos in New Mexico was her home for much of her childhood, so getting to the best-known teachers on the coasts was a challenge. Most interesting is Denk’s personal growth, told with frankness and humor. His years at Oberlin College and graduate school are compelling for the vast new worlds he encounters and for his growing realization that he is gay. A very special part of this book are its compelling musical explanations that fascinate and enlighten.

The perfect sound: a memory in stereo by Garrett Hongo

Garrett Hongo is a renowned poet and essayist, and this memoir shows that he is a person of insatiable curiosity. He’s a wonderful writer. Seemingly about his search for the perfect stereo, this book is Hongo’s love affair with music. Starting with the music of his Japanese Hawaiian ancestry, he explores a myriad of musical mediums, from rock and jazz to opera, all of classical work and beyond. Hongo doesn’t get tired of the music or the equipment to listen to it on, but really, he doesn’t get tired of life. It chronicles his travels around the world, featuring a remarkable array of people obsessed with audio gear or music or both. With something to learn on every page, the book is a literary and musical feast.

Dvořák’s prophecy: and the thwarted fate of black classical music by Joseph Horowitz

Although not a memoir, this book is an indispensable exposition of the importance of black classical musicians in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The book can be dense at times, but it is worth reading. Famous Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorak was recruited in the 1890s to establish a classical music school for black students in New York. Dvorak quickly concluded that the future of American classical music lay with black and native composers, due to their rich, entirely original music and rhythmic complexities. In a terrible and familiar trope, the white music establishment did everything to prevent this from happening. Participants in this suppression effort included some of the most famous names in 20th century American music. They had painful success. Horowitz believes that this suppression of black classical musicians pushed them to “invent” and nurture the glorious world of jazz.

Missed Translations: Meeting the Immigrant Parents Who Raised Me by Sopan Deb

Sopan Deb covers basketball and cultural issues for the New York Times, as well as performing as a stand-up comedian. In his first book, a memoir, he embarks on a journey to reunite with his Bengali parents after they abandoned him separately before his early twenties. This, despite what on the outside looked like a typical suburban New Jersey upbringing. The book is notable for breaking down a myriad of stereotypes about Bengali immigrants to America. Deb’s classical piano lessons, which his parents insisted on when he was a young boy, especially once it became clear he had real talent, are a fun side-hustle. Although not the main theme of the book, Deb writes with wisdom and humor about the torture of training for these lessons despite her talent and the pleasure her playing brings to the people around her.

Gone: A girl, a violin, a life without strings by Min Kym

These poignant memoirs reveal the loss that shattered Min Kym’s life: the theft of her precious Stradivarius violin. Kym is the daughter of Korean parents who immigrated to England to pursue the violin career of their child prodigy. With a few bumps in the road, Kym glided through her training to stardom, studying with famous teachers and landing lucrative recording deals and gigs. Everything changed with her involvement with a controlling boyfriend, who increasingly took charge of her life. He brushed aside his safety concerns as they grabbed a bite at a station cafe, and in a split second his violin was gone. This heartbreaking trauma almost destroyed his life. How had she allowed herself to stay in a loveless relationship when her Strad was clearly her first and only love? How could she continue in music without it? Who was she as a person now that her Strad was gone? She sinks into a severe depression and lethargy before finally beginning to reinvent her life, slowly and with significant obstacles along the way.

Indivisible by Four: A string quartet in search of harmony by Arnold Steinhardt

Imagine being married not to one person, but to three. Such is life in a string quartet. Arnold Steinhardt, who played the first violin of the famous Guarneri Quartet for more than forty years, recounts his childhood and his training on the violin, and how the Guarneri Quartet was founded. His descriptions of living with four people together on the road more than at home, trying to make beautiful music while living with each other’s weaknesses and tics, are fascinating. There’s more than practice and rehearsal that goes into a long-running, world-renowned string quartet.

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