Just back from a profoundly beautiful and moving documentary, “Seymour: an introduction,” (love the reference to Salinger) directed by Ethan Hawke, about the New York pianist and teacher Seymour Bernstein. A film about the universal language of the soul that is music – including, in a section on the ecstasy produced by music, footage of the very young Beatles and their audience. But the film is also about the power of an empathetic and wise teacher who has helped many pianists achieve their goals.
Seymour tells about realizing, at a very young age, that when his practicing was going well, his life was as well, and that the reverse was also true. “The real essence of who we are,” he concludes, “resides in our talent.”
“Most artists,” he says about stage fright, “are not nervous enough.”
“Struggle is what makes the art form,” he says in a discussion on craft. He’s a serene man who gives only one hint of pain and struggle, when he tells us that his father used to say he had three daughters and a pianist. “He couldn’t say he had a son,” Seymour says; his father had no understanding of who that son was. Seymour reports that he constructed a “translucent dome” around himself; outside were ravens pecking, trying to get in, but they could not harm him. One of the birds was his father.
He’s a joyful, solitary man who entrances us as well as his students. As I left, my heart broke a little for my own young self. Both my parents and three of my grandparents were musical, and there’s no question my brother and I are as well. I took piano as a kid, came second at the age of 11 in a provincial music competition with a Bach piece, and then, at 13, quit. The piano was my mother’s domain, and classical music belonged to my parents; just too fraught for me. And now, at the age of 64, I am returning to music on the piano of my childhood. So far behind, playing the same Bach pieces I did in 1962.
Though I was envious of the kids in the film, so accomplished, such brilliance at their fingertips – no point regretting a life without an instrument. I celebrate that I’m able to come back now; to rediscover this language I am so very eager to learn.
PS Just turned on the radio to hear Randy Bachman – welcome home! He’s playing a Red Hot Chili Pepper’s song called “Music is my airplane.”
Seymour Bernstein started playing the piano as a little boy, and by the time he turned 15 he was teaching it to others. He enjoyed a long and illustrious career as a performer before he gave it up to devote himself to helping others develop their own gifts. While Ethan Hawke’s gentle, meditative study is a warm and lucid portrait of Bernstein and his exceptional life and work, it’s also a love letter to the study of music itself, and a film about the patience, concentration, and devotion that