“…the Labyrinth of voices inside your head”


N. Szajnberg, MD, Managing Editor

Occasionally, someone quite peripheral to psychoanalysis gets the resonance of this craft.  Jeremy Denk, writing of finding his piano practice book from youth, gets the sense of what it means, how one learns a discipline — making music, making psychoanalysis, a duet of its own.

Jeremy Denk

Denk (a fine name from German, “Think.”) is a concert pianist and a remarkable essayist.  Here is the link to the New Yorker article, “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” (April 8, 2013)

Click Here to Read This Article

But, a few words about what he says that reminds us of the aesthetic aspects of psychoanalytic practice, and how we learn this craft, the stages of learning.  Three passages remind me of learning this craft.

First, he recalls seeking out, finding, a master teacher, who eventually becomes more human than otherwise. In his case, this is at Oberlin.  This man could play “as if the concepts behind the notes, playful and profound, had come alive.”  The notes on the page, as Michael Tilson Thomas once wrote, are not the music: they are only the forme fruste of what the composer heard in his or her head.  The musician tries to transform the little black notes into what was intended. When Leonard Bernstein retired from the New York Symphony, he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic, which prided itself as being the orchestra of Mozart, the ones in the “know.”  At his first rehearsal (filmed by Burton), Bernstein interrupted the Philharmonic after a few notes of Mozart (perhaps it was the Jupiter Symphony), insisting that they got it all wrong, they were playing the notes, not the music. Burton and others could see the Viennese men (no women in the orchestra then) turn red with silent fury, as if thinking, “Who’s this Jew to tell us about Mozart.” Yet, after a few hours of further rehearsal, the orchestra fell upon Bernstein in love and gratitude for revealing the music beneath the little black notes. (A few years on, when being interviewed with the orchestra, Bernstein embraced a few members and allegedly introduced them as his little Nazis.)  So too in our analytic learning, what are the steps from learning the notes to learning to hear and perform the music (usually the feelings) beneath the notes, the words expressed?

Denk describes a sharp put-down by his teacher, who insists he is playing a caricature (of his teacher) rather than in the character of his teacher (or himself, we might say).  Early practitioners may also be caricatures of their valued teachers (or analyst) and with good fortune, with great effort, with an ability to adapt to the analysands’ needs, the practitioner develops character.

We can shift the meaning of one of Denk’s passages just slightly to hear something about supervision in clinical practice. “You can be working with a student you’ve recently met and you begin to tinker with one thing, even the movement of an arm. It becomes clear that some important muscle has been blocked fora  decade or more. It’s an intimate think, being shown these years of lost possibilities….”  I prefer not to tinker. But, we do learn how slight shifts in listening might result in significant shifts in a supervisee’s clinical practice. Yet, supervising someone who has practiced for years and perhaps developed habits of technique that interfere with the analysand’s efforts, it is far more difficult to rectify these.  The supervisee will tend to return to sail his or her own course, even for worse.  But, at times, a touch of the tiller will help the sailor sense other possibilities.

Denk writes of two types of important teachers: those who insist, demand, the details, and those who seem to go beyond the details.  “…there is no end to the details one could strive for…. but.. the desire for perfection could be a deadly weakness.”  It is not one or the other, but paradoxically, both.

Listen to Denk’s closing words as they resonate with our work:

“There’s a labyrinth of voices inside your head, a counterpoint of self-awareness and the remembered sayings of your guides and mentors, who don’t always agree. Sometimes you wish you could go back and ask your teachers again to guide you, but up there onstage, exactly where they always wanted you to be, you must simply find your way. they have given all the help they can; the only person who can solve the labyrinth of yourself is you.”

This captures the stages of developing a craft: learning well the techniques and tactics from our teachers; gradually combining and refining these to our style, but more so, to the needs of our analysands.

 Click Here for : Jeremy Denk Video on the New Yorker website

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One Comment on ““…the Labyrinth of voices inside your head””

  1. roberta george Says:

    Just read your article about piano practice to my nearly blind friend,
    who started playing the guitar, and then banjo, and finally the dulcimer.
    At 85 he practices two or three hours a day, memorizing songs. Your
    article explained to some extent what makes a really great musician. Thank you so
    much for those insights. Roberta George


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