November 17, 2015 -- Most people would not consider they'd lived a full life if they'd been working as a teacher and living in the same apartment for 57 years, particularly if they'd given up a life of fame and fortune on the concert stages of the world, but Seymour Bernstein defies convention, and does it convincingly.
Directed by noted actor Ethan Hawke, this movie explores the fascinating life and ideas of this lesser-known Bernstein from his early days (he began teaching piano as a teenager in the 1940s) to his years on the concert stage to his life now as a piano instructor, author, mentor, composer and as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Music.
We see Bernstein teaching his pupils the fine points of performing, from posture, breath control, emotional control, to the precise modulation of sound. He seems patient, but insistent. His methods seem unique in some respects. His students seem quite successful, and they give him high praise in the film. Bernstein is heard on the soundtrack of the film and we see a lot of him at the keyboard, playing, by himself, or with students. There is a concert featuring Bernstein, too.
Bernstein is a very eloquent man in many ways. Much of the film is given to Bernstein imparting his wisdom about life and music. Now in his 80s, Bernstein talks a lot about his decision to stop performing on stage when he was 50 years old (he also wrote about it in a book, “Monsters and Angels: Surviving a Career in Music”). He talks about his extreme nervousness before and during performances, but he doesn't seem nervous in the film. He talks about other aspects of the music business he did not like, too.
Bernstein talks about the power of music in mystical, metaphysical terms. In conversations, one musician talks about hearing the music of the universe. Another talks about objects in space giving off musical notes. Music is a universal language that doesn't need to be interpreted.
Music was evidently a calling for Bernstein, since he said there was virtually no music at all in his home growing up, but he felt compelled to get a piano, and lessons. He talks about a woman who was his patron at one time, but he left when he felt hemmed in. He talks about the satisfaction he felt in the response to his classical music concerts on the front lines during the Korean War.
Most of all, Bernstein talks about the need for practice and the need to learn the mechanics of playing. He indicates his art did not come easily for him. He describes the effort as a struggle, as war. This is something he imparts to his students, the need to learn the craft and the need for constant practice. He also teaches that composing their own music is as important as learning to play the compositions of others.
Bernstein seems like a man who has found fulfillment in his life, and his students seem fulfilled as well. His story is compelling and his words seem to be loaded with wisdom. He is a fascinating character. This film rates an A.
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