Seymour Bernstein was a New York piano prodigy who delighted all manner of audience. But one day in 1977, he up and decided that he’d had enough of the limelight and opted to devote his life to teaching instead.
A Gotham fixture for decades, Mr. Bernstein’s story is now told in the documentary “Seymour: An Introduction,” directed by his friend Ethan Hawke.
One of the most intriguing chapters of Mr. Bernstein’s life was his service as an infantryman in Korea, where his tool of choice was more often the piano rather than his Army-issued M1 rifle.
“I was sent out on the front lines with this weapon, and my duty was to perform for the U.N. troops there,” Mr. Bernstein, 88, told The Washington Times about his first time away from home. “I remember playing the [Chopin] A flat ‘Polonaise’ and shells were flying over my head,” the charming Mr. Bernstein related with a laugh. “Boy, did I play fast.”
In 1981, Mr. Bernstein published “With Your Own Two Hands: Self-Discovery Through Music,” a primer on piano technique and on enhancing musicianship through focus and attention. In the film, Mr. Bernstein is quoted as saying, “I never dreamt that with my own two hands, I could touch the sky,” a nod to his own work.
“One of my closest friends was Flora Levin,” Mr. Bernstein said of the late scholar on Greek classicism and antiquity, who also happened to be his student and helped out on “With Your Own Two Hands.”
“The book is in the printing house ready to get into the machines to print 500 copies for Macmillan,” Mr. Bernstein said, “and I’m teaching one day [when Levin] calls me, and she says, ‘You have to stop teaching and call the publisher.’”
As the oracles might have had it, Levin had just translated a poem by Sappho, the often hotly debated inhabitant of the island of Lesbos. The translation Levin discerned: “I never dreamt that with my own two hands I could touch the sky.”
“When she read it back to me, I burst into tears,” Mr. Bernstein said. “I was actually using [Sappho’s] words. I called the publisher [and said] it has to be the front page of the book. And it is. It’s on the front page of my book.”
Mr. Hawke makes fleeting appearances in his film, often simply conversing with Mr. Bernstein, who is twice the Oscar-nominated actor’s age. Themes of mortality hug gently at the edges of “Seymour,” but Mr. Bernstein’s affability and calm typically nudge Mr. Hawke’s midlife angst out of the frame.
In one weighted moment, the two men — subject and observer — parlay in the basement of the Steinway piano warehouse in New York.
“He said to me [in the scene], ‘I have half of my life to live, and I’m wondering [if] maybe I should just focus on life itself,’” Mr. Bernstein said of his director. “His true essence lies in his acting. I said to him, ‘Well how about through acting?’ And he mumbled something and then stopped and said, ‘I’d love to do it through acting.’
“Anyway, he’s changed a lot,” Mr. Bernstein said, “and he admitted in a lot of Q&A periods that was a new concept to him that he could direct the disciplines that he learned from acting into his everyday life so that Ethan the actor and Ethan the person were one and the same.”
Indeed, the tail wagged the dog as Mr. Hawke persuaded Mr. Bernstein, for the film, to make his first public performance in nearly four decades.
“It was traumatic,” Mr. Bernstein said with a warm laugh. “When I came to the hall, I just flipped right out. I saw all these actors and actresses sitting there, and the lights and the cameras and I said, ‘Oh my god, how am I going to survive this?’
“But I wasn’t going to let Ethan down. So I practiced eight hours a day for about a year before that performance, just like I was going to get ready for my New York debut. Ethan comes over and gives me a hug, and a profound calm came over me” at the performance hall.
Mr. Bernstein’s public re-debut had him playing the final movement of Schumann’s “Fantasy,” a profoundly moving, elegiac work that silenced all in attendance.
“It was so beautiful,” Mr. Bernstein said upon seeing the film of his own performance. “I liked my playing. I broke down.”
In addition to imparting life wisdom to Mr. Hawke, Mr. Bernstein’s gentle demeanor is shown in the film in his guiding aspiring pianists. Rather than raising his voice at errors, he gently but decisively coaches and corrects his students.
Mr. Bernstein credits Clifford Curzon as his greatest teacher. However, for all of Curzon’s virtuosity as a musician, his social and humanistic skills were lacking, Mr. Bernstein said.
“He was a very neurotic person,” he said. “He didn’t synthesize his art with his social world.”
Mr. Bernstein insists that the concept of the mad genius, while very much real, is surmountable, and that great artists can in fact also be decent humans.
“If you accept that your true self is what your talent is, your real identity lies within that talent that you have a passion for,” he said. “And if you develop that talent [but] you don’t direct the disciplines of it into your social world, you get into serious trouble, because the social world is very unpredictable [whereas] your art is very predictable. So as you develop your emotional, intellectual and physical worlds through your art, you’re supposed to direct that into your everyday life.
“Ethan didn’t know that’s possible. Now he knows that that’s possible.”
As the time for our chat expired, Mr. Bernstein excused himself as a student entered his Upper West Side apartment for a lesson. Perhaps that prodigy will one day also touch the sky, just as the mentor has on numerous occasions.
“Seymour: An Introduction” will open in D.C. theaters Friday.