Seymour: An Introduction–Interview with Seymour Bernstein

Question: How old were you when you first started playing piano?

Seymour Bernstein:  When I was three years old, my parents took me to visit Aunt Ethel. There I had my
first encounter with a piano. Sounding tones on that old upright brought me into another world, a world where I somehow knew I belonged. When I was six, I begged my mother for lessons. Someone gave us an old player upright piano, and it was not only that my lessons began; as it seemed to me, my life also began at that moment.
What was performing publicly like for you when you were younger. What can
you tell us about when and why you decided to stop?
I performed a lot in school. But I didn’t perform publicly until I was in my teens. My
career advanced quite rapidly and very successfully. Soon I became very
disillusioned with the managerial world and with the commercial aspects of
performing. I also longed to have more time to compose and to write. With
practicing 6-8 hours a day and teaching, I had very little time for creative work. So at
the age of 50, I decided to call my performing career to a halt. I arranged a farewell
concert at the 92nd Street Y. My final piece on my program was a major composition
I wrote entitled AMERICAN PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION. Of course I continued to
give lectures and master classes and performed a great deal during them. I have
been exceedingly happy ever since.
What in your career do you take the most pride in?
I take pride in my ability to interpret music. I have a sense of intuiting what the
composers had in mind in expressing human emotion. I also take pride in my ability
to impart my knowledge to my pupils. My greatest pleasure is to help my pupils feel
good about themselves.
Do you remember the first time you met Ethan, and what your impressions
were of him?
I first met Ethan at a dinner party hosted by my pupil Tony Zito. The conversation
that ensued at the dinner table could best be described as revelatory and explosive.
Being performers, we shared to pros and cons of our profession. I was struck by
Ethan’s openness with me, even in discussing performance anxiety, which plagues all
performers. I immediately felt a deep kinship with him. Of course I never dreamt that
this would lead to Ethan directing a documentary about me. But in a sense, it is also
a documentary about Ethan, since we have probed the deepest areas of why we
have devoted ourselves to our art, and how that devotion has influenced our lives.
What did you think when Ethan approached you about the movie?
I was dumbstruck when Ethan approached me about making a documentary. I
wondered why I was so special to receive such an honor. He explained to me very
succinctly that his intention was to demonstrate to the public, and especially to
young people how a devotion to an art form can influence our lives. He then asked if
I would agree to give a recital for his theater group. I was 84 at the time and hadn’t
given a public recital in 34 years. Something in Ethan’s manner, his interest in me,
and his desire to share something with his colleagues made me say yes. I practiced
for that recital exactly as I did for my New York debut. Saying “yes” was one of the
best decisions I have made in my life.
What was it like having cameras tailing you?
The first session was somewhat unsettling, as this was the first time I was part of a
serious film. But after around the 3rd shoot, I enjoyed every aspect of it, especially
my rapport with Ryan, Heather, Greg, and Ramsey. We enjoyed a combination of
seriousness and humor. Of course I was extremely nervous in anticipation of my
recital. But I became deathly calm once I entered the Steinway rotunda. There was
Ethan who gave himself over to each aspect of the documentary with the dedication
and zeal that informed his own extraordinary performances. There was no way I
would let him down.
What do you hope most that somebody would learn, or think, after watching
this introduction to your life?
I believe that the essence of who we are reveals itself through whatever talent we
have. I want people to know that a dedication to that talent, or whatever passion
interests us, has an ultimate reward: by integrating our emotional and intellectual
worlds, and in the case of instrumentalists, actors, and dancers, our physical world as
well, we can actually integrate or harmonize our personalities.
Room 5 Films
Room 5 Films is a New York City-based production company. We produce narrative
and documentary films, and short-form content.
Founded in 2008 by Ramsey Fendall and Greg Loser, and later joined by producer
Heather Smith, Room 5 brings strong direction and a robust production background
to our work.


Michael Kimmelman

Author, critic, columnist, pianist, student, and life-long friend of Seymour Bernstein’s. He is a writer and critic for The New York Times and has written on issues of public housing, public space, infrastructure, community development and social responsibility.

Andrew Harvey

Author, religious scholar and teacher of mystic traditions, known primarily for his popular nonfiction books on spiritual or mystical themes, beginning with his 1983 A Journey in Ladakh. He and Seymour have been friends for several years and enjoy discussing all that life has to offer.

Joseph Smith

Through performances, recordings, broadcasts, lectures, and magazine articles, Smith has brought many little-known pieces to the attention of the public. He studied piano under Seymour for years.
Kimball Gallagher A multi-faceted concert pianist, songwriter, recording artist and musical entrepreneur, trained at the prestigious Juilliard School and Rice.