A few years ago, actor Ethan Hawke attended a dinner party with friends and was introduced to virtuoso pianist and composer Seymour Bernstein. They had a wonderful evening with conversation about stage fright, career success vs. success in life as a whole, developing and sharing your creative gifts, hard work and craft. Hawke was so intrigued with the 88 year-old Goldstein that he made him the subject of his first documentary film. I'm glad he did, because the sensitively constructed portrait and interviews with Bernstein and his current and former piano students of different ages has many valuable life lessons in it that don't require any knowledge of music.
Seymour: An Introduction (2014) is out in limited release in theatres now. It debuted at the Telluride Film Festival last summer and won an award at the Toronto International Film Festival. It's noteworthy that Seymour is a classical pianist who toured internationally as a younger man, and then abandoned his rising career at age 50 to retreat to a quieter life where he teaches piano from his one-room apartment in New York city.
In the film, we can see the mentoring relationship that Seymour develops with his students and former students, as well as with Hawke. Bernstein has wisdom, and he has his own ideas about creative gifts and talent.
Bernstein says in the film that he believes music is an important part of becoming a complete person. He suggests having children take piano lessons and having them practice while you supervise. Practicing a musical instrument is a great metaphor for others things in life which necessitate our continued effort, patience and tenacity. One of Bernstein's former students who is now a professional concert pianist himself laughs about how often people will comment after his concerts that they wish they could just sit down and play the beautiful classical pieces that he does. He reminds them that every song takes uncountable hours of practice. The craft is part of the art of music. It takes focus and discipline, which builds character.
Bernstein and Hawke engage in an interesting dialogue about professional success. Both agree that you don't always earn money for the things you most need to create, but you need to create them anyway. Hawke shares about making far more money on big films he doesn't care as much for, while some of his smaller projects (like this documentary film) mean much more. They both reflect on how the ego can get in the way of great art, music, film or theatre.
I especially liked the part of the film where Bernstein shares how he deals with questions about why he chose to stop performing publically after age 50. He says he feels he had done it, and proved he could do it. Since then, for the last 38 years, "he pours all of that out" in what he gives to his students.
In music, like in life, Bernstein says, we need harmony, conflict, and resolution.
Great music, like great art of all kinds, evokes deeply felt emotion that touches us at a very deep level. This thought resonated with me, as I reflected on hospice work with terminally ill patients years ago, and a gifted music therapist who could draw out emotion and responsiveness with her
harpsichord at the bedside. Music can transport us to another place, time or emotional state.
Hawke had confided in Bernstein about the stage fright he had developed in his 40's, and Bernstein reassures him that is normal in good performances. He had experienced it, too. Bernstein quips that maybe a few more (overly-confident artists) should feel some trepidation as well.
Seymour: An Introduction is a charming little independent film you will enjoy. It's chock full of his sage advice and reflections about living with passion and speaking honestly from your heart rather than saying what others expect. It is refreshing to have films that question what creative success really is and challenge the popular notion of easy success without sustained work at your craft. (Think The Voice or American Idol) Seymour has a lot to say about not only music, but about living life your own way. Now that's a life well lived.