8 Memoirs About the Journey to Becoming a Classical Musician

Martha Anne Toll, author of "Three Muses," recommends stories about a life dedicated to music

Photo by William Recinos on Unsplash

A major part of my life before turning to writing was my immersion in classical music. I trained to become a professional violist, and performed in orchestra and chamber music groups for years. Although I ended up on a different professional path, classical music infuses my writing and provides the soundtrack for my prose.

My debut novel, Three Muses, is a love story between a ballerina and a Holocaust survivor. Song, Discipline, and Memory are the muses who frame the book. John survives the Holocaust by singing for the kommandant who murdered his family. He falls in love with a prima ballerina, Katya Symanova. Unbeknownst to John, Katya is enmeshed in an abusive creative partnership with her choreographer. John and Katya’s path to each other is fraught 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 memoirs below recount 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.

Constructing a Nervous System: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson

Margo Jefferson is a brilliant cultural critic who wrote for the New York Times for many years. As a Black woman who grew up in privilege in Chicago, she has written two searing memoirs about just how much racism interferes with and infects her career. In this book, the second of the two, Jefferson ties together her own rigorous classical piano training with eminent Black musicians. Her riff on Ella Fitzgerald is at once horrifying for the bigotry Fitzgerald suffered, and celebratory of Fitzgerald’s dignity and prodigious gifts. Writing in an experimental style to highlight her injuries 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

Debut writer Natalie Hodges trained as a concert violinist with all the pressures that that entails, including performance “failures.” As she graduates Harvard, she begins to examine her chosen life. In this unusual memoir, Hodges weaves in and out of the science of time to examine her life in music: “Music itself embodies time, shaping our sense of its passage through rhythm and harmony, melody and form.”

Of special interest is her venture into learning how to improvise, a skill that is core to jazz, rock, and many other forms of music, but absent from classical training. With carefully wrought lyricism, Hodges provides music history and mature insight, especially into how she wants to care for her body and soul.

Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, in Music Lessons by Jeremy Denk

Jeremy Denk is a concert pianist and an insightful and edifying writer. This memoir deconstructs his life’s trajectory, from growing up in a dysfunctional household with parents who want only for him to become a professional pianist, to how he survived it—by complying, and by going through the grueling competition circuit to get his name out there. Los Alamos in New Mexico was home for much of his childhood, so accessing the more well-known teachers on the coasts was a challenge. Most interesting is Denk’s personal growth, recounted with bluntness and humor. His years at Oberlin College and in 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 his cogent musical explanations which fascinate and enlighten.

The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo by Garrett Hongo

Garrett Hongo is a renowned poet and essayist, and this memoir shows him to be a person of insatiable curiosity. He is a magnificent writer. Ostensibly 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 myriad musical mediums, from rock to jazz to opera to the entire classical oeuvre and way beyond. Hongo can’t get enough of music or the equipment on which to listen to it, but really, he can’t get enough of life. He recounts his world travels, introducing a remarkable spectrum of people obsessed with audio equipment or music or both. With something to learn on every page, the book is a literary and musical feast.

Dvořák’s Prophecy: And the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music by Joseph Horowitz

While not a memoir, this book is a much-needed exposé 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 well worth the read. Celebrated Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorak was recruited in the 1890s to start a classical music school for Black students in New York. Dvorak quickly concluded that the future of American classical music was with Black and Indigenous composers, due to their rich, wholly original music and its rhythmic complexities. In a terrible and familiar trope, the white musical establishment did everything to prevent this happening. Participants in this suppression effort included some of the most famous names in American twentieth century music. They were painfully successful. Horowitz feels this suppression of Black classical musicians drove them to “invent” and nourish 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 standup comedian. In his debut book, a memoir, he embarks on a journey to find his Bengali parents after they separately abandoned him before his early twenties. This, despite what looked on the outside like a typical suburban upbringing in New Jersey. The book is notable for breaking myriad stereotypes about Bengali immigrants in America. One amusing sideline is 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. While not the major theme of the book, Deb writes with wisdom and humor about the torture of practicing for these lessons despite his skill and the pleasure his playing provided to the people around him.

Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung by Min Kym

This harrowing memoir unspools the loss that shattered Min Kym’s life: the theft of her prized Stradivarius violin. Kym is the daughter of Korean parents who immigrated to England to further their child prodigy’s violin career. With few bumps in the road, Kym glided through her training toward stardom, studying with famous teachers, and obtaining lucrative recording contracts and concert gigs. Everything changed with her involvement with a controlling boyfriend, who took increasing charge of her life. He brushed off her security concerns as they grabbed a bite at a train station café, and in a split second her violin was gone. This wrenching trauma nearly destroyed her 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 descends into 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 Pursuit 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 first violin in the celebrated Guarneri Quartet for over forty years, recounts his childhood and violin education, and how the Guarneri Quartet came to be founded. His descriptions of living with four people together on the road more than they are home, trying to make beautiful music while living with each other’s foibles and tics, is fascinating. There’s a lot more than practicing and rehearsals that goes into a long-lasting, world-famous string quartet.

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