How Practice Perfects Us: Ethan Hawke and Seymour Bernstein At Their Best

Seymour: An Introduction, is an oddly titled documentary about an 88-year-old pianist, who gave up performing 37 years ago to become a teacher. Seymour Bernstein, a classical pianist, unknown to me, is now starring in a film at his late age and graces the movie stage for a Q/A session following the film. Ethan Hawke, a respected actor, suddenly at 40, has made his first documentary about performance-anxiety. An odd couple each at a precarious threshold, I wondered how they ever got together.

Seymour's electric connection with Ethan Hawke occurred at dinner when they were by chance seated next to each other. Ethan revealed to him that he was struggling with stage fright on Broadway; Seymour responded that such crippling anxiety, agony overtaking pleasure, had done him in 30 years before, when he was 50, prompting him to leave his lucrative concert life, retreating into teaching. An electric pulse between then transformed the event from being seatmates to soulmates.

Hawke's documentary film captures that intimate conversation in which Seymour Bernstein bares his soul and reveals his true passion -- to transform young, gifted pianists into fine interpreters of music. With no formulaic score for teaching, Bernstein's zen-like focus of his craft is uniquely revealed to each student in his master class as if he "becomes" each pupil in order to guide them. I recognized that overwhelming focus with my own clients, as if being channeled. And as if he hears my thought, he whispers, "When I am playing, I don't feel I am playing. The music is playing me."

In that first momentous dinner, Ethan confides in Seymour his terror of letting slip a line. Seymour empathizes; most performers share that fear. Then he tells him a story, a parable perhaps, about a great violinist whose abiding dread was dropping his bow in the middle of a performance, even pointing to a place in the score where he was sure that he would drop his bow. As a test to see whether he would die if he actually did, he did purposely drop his bow right in the middle of a concert at that same phrase. The audience gasped. Then he bent down, retrieved his bow and started over, to great applause. Knowing he was still alive, his terror vanished for good. Bernstein advised Hawke to mimic the violinist. One night on stage at a line he might have forgotten, he let out a yowl instead and then continued right on. The audience, never the wiser, thought it was part of the play. It cured Ethan immediately as well.

Never having been filmed before, Seymour was puzzled about what to do and how to act. Ethan replied that he should simply think out loud as he played, talk to himself about how is playing the music while he is playing it. And it is in those audible thoughts that we learn a great deal about --and deeply respond to -- Bernstein's life music.

After Seymour stopped performing in 1977, he wrote to Clifford Curzon, to his mind the greatest pianist, asking for lessons; Curzon invited him to come study in London with him every evening for six months. When others asked if they enjoyed a social life, Bernstein, said, music is my life. I want nothing else but to play -- to learn and to teach. Back in New York City in his tiny apartment, he wondered why Curzon had not been knighted and immediately wrote a letter to the Queen whose office responded: Sir Clifford Curzon would be knighted within the next few months. Whether it was Seymour Bernstein's influence or pure coincidence, Bernstein smiles deeply at his audience, his hand at his heart, in honor of a great musician.

Seymour tells us that we are responsible only to our own standards. Performing is, after all, a superhuman activity. It therefore requires practice. For him, practice means four to eight hours every day every week. But the irony lies in the process of what happens to us in the act of doing. Practice does so much more than make us better performers. It is quite the other way round. Practice makes us better human beings. For Seymour, the piano is a metaphor for life. It requires passion and talent, your essence, which then influences how you live and love your living, far more than earning it. This message of your debt to your calling reverberates throughout the documentary. You must practice your passion, whether it is music or stage, gardening or cooking. It has summoned hundreds of viewers to write to him, all with the same message: "I don't know anything about music, but your film is all about my life."

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