Seymour: An Introduction
Starring Seymour Bernstein, Ethan Hawke
Seymour is about pianist/philosopher Seymour Bernstein, who decided to give up his stage career when he was 50, and turn to teaching full-time. Ethan Hawke, the director, should be proud of this fine documentary, which provides an artistic, impressionistic view of a gifted musician and teacher. It is a philosophical as well as a musical exploration into performance, the performer, and life itself.
Hawke had been wrestling in his own mind about “why I do what I do”, and whether he was being authentic in his life. Also, during the previous five years, he had been experiencing crippling stage fright. About this time, he met Seymour at a dinner party and began chatting about it because he immediately felt comfortable around the musician. Seymour’s responses to him proved to be more valuable than anything Hawke had been given before, and he conceived the idea of making a documentary about Bernstein’s life. This is all made clearer by viewing the documentary, in which we discover the pianist is as much a philosopher/teacher as a musician.
The format of the documentary consists primarily of demonstrating Seymour’s teaching methods with actual students, former students’ impressions of him, and his own musings about himself, the music business, and a bit of his own performances, which occurs mostly at the end of the film while the credits are rolling. He plays the first movement of Schumann’s Fantasy in C Major, Opus 17, written for Clara, Schumann’s wife. Seymour notes that Schumann called it “one quiet note played for a secret eavesdropper”, and went on to say to Clara, “You are the note of my life, and you are the secret eavesdropper.”
Ramsey Fendall’s cinematography, Anna Gustavi’s editing, and the sound work by Hollie Bennett and Matthew Polis—along with a fascinating, articulate subject—make this documentary a beautiful piece of art. It never drags, even though it is about one person, because it is populated with so many of Seymour’s students and colleagues and has so many musical interludes.
It never drags, even though it is about one person.
Seymour loves his students, but emphasizes to them the importance of practice. Upon first encountering students who refused to do so, Seymour was incredulous, especially given his personal experience. At age six he begged his mother to get him piano lessons, even though no music was ever played in his home. She acquiesced, and later on, after he had learned to play, he found a Schubert serenade in a book and began to play it, feeling as if he had always known it. He found it so beautiful he wept.
Seymour and two of his former students talk more about the importance of practicing. Kimball Gallagher observes that each performance of a piece represents thousands of hours of practice. For classes, he sometimes plays a piece very slowly to demonstrate how practicing like that for hours makes the piece what it is, ultimately. Joseph Smith adds that Americans tend to think that talent is everything, and it just happens; they don’t realize the number or practice hours involved.
When he was younger, Seymour was a successful performing musician, had a wealthy patroness, and was getting fabulous reviews. But none of this could compensate for the nerve-wracking experience he had before a concert, periodic memory blocks, feelings of inadequacy as a performer and as a person, and the commercial aspect of performing. He said it wasn’t until age 50 that he began to feel comfortable on the stage, yet at that time, he decided to arrange a farewell concert, which would be his last. He found his creative identity as a teacher after he ended his concert career, when everything seemed clearer, and he became happier and more fulfilled. Many said, “Don’t you have a responsibility to your audience?” And his response was: “I pour it into my students.”
Since retiring from the stage, Seymour has been living in a one-room apartment “because I love my solitude.” He finds order, harmony, predictability, and control in music, unlike in the social world in which a relationship can be destroyed by one careless remark.
Seymour: “I never dreamt that with my own two hands, I could touch the sky.”