Acclaimed Pianist Seymour Bernstein's Tip For Overcoming Stage Fright
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Acclaimed Pianist Seymour Bernstein's Tip For Overcoming Stage FrightSomething Ethan Hawke, Director Of His Biography, Shares
A chance dinner party invitation in New York sparked a deep friendship between an 86 year old concert pianist, turned composer and teacher, and a well-known movie star, with something very important in common. It also resulted in the critically acclaimed documentary Seymour: An Introduction. In my new book, Play Life More Beautifully, I recount my conversations with Seymour about this and much, much more. Here is an excerpt...
Andrew: When you pick up a passion again, it can be a very frightening thing, because you’ve let it fall. How do you feel your presence in the film reassures people that they can?
Seymour: Well, look what I did in the film: although I hadn’t given a solo recital for thirty-seven years, I survived pretty well. Andrew, you know I’m eighty-eight, so you don’t want me to lie, do you?
Seymour: I think I played gorgeously in that recital. But you don’t know what it cost me to play like that. I told you previously that, whether we want to admit it or not, we perform the way we practice. In spite of that, I have known musicians even younger than I am who stopped performing in public for different reasons, and made a comeback with disastrous results. In most cases, when you don’t perform in public for so many years, that is what happens. So what measures did I take? I practiced eight hours per day. In order to survive, you have to be twice as prepared as you think you need to be: I had one tryout after another in front of different privately invited audiences; I recorded my recital together with the comments I intended to make; I listened to playbacks, changed interpretive attitudes, re-fingered some passages, and, in short, I did everything possible to survive. So would you like to know how I felt when I came to the hall?
Seymour: As I got out of the taxi, my heart began pounding. I was a nervous wreck—ready to be taken to the hospital. The first thing I saw were well-known actors and actresses sitting there, and a host of friends and pupils. I saw Ethan walking around. Finally, I saw the piano bathed in a light so intense that it looked as though the sun had set upon it. I thought, There’s no way I can survive this. It would have been difficult enough even if a movie wasn’t about to be made. But it would be filmed for posterity. I thought, This is where I’m going to die. I’ll come in and have a heart attack. But at least I’ll die in a musical setting.
Andrew: And on film too!
Seymour: And very dramatic! At any rate, as I entered the rotunda, Ethan gave me a hug, and everyone I knew came over to greet me. Like most performers before major appearances, I pretended that everything was fine. This is what performers really do. You never know that they’re nervous, and you certainly don’t know that they feel they’re going to die. I perched myself on a beautiful armchair as Ethan walked over to me and began speaking: “I want to tell you why I brought you all here,” and the event formally began. Andrew, would you believe that as soon as Ethan began speaking, a deathly calm came over me? I thought, What a relief; what a blessing. I remember wondering, Why did this calm come over me?
Andrew: What was the answer?
Seymour: The answer came the following day: I suddenly realized that I had done this for Ethan in gratitude for all he was doing for me. There was no way I would let him down. I heard myself speak in the documentary before I even played. I said, “You didn’t tell them about Sarah Bernhardt and her nervousness,” and there’s no quiver in my voice. I sounded perfectly calm. I brought that calmness to the piano, and I played the recital straight through without splicing. I never heard of anyone giving a professional concert that’s being videotaped or put into a movie without retakes. It just doesn’t happen. Performers make mistakes and you have to do some splicing. I did make a few mistakes, but they were insignificant. Days later, I contemplated how I could have experienced something close to a panic attack one minute and then grow deathly calm the next. Here is my conclusion: when you do something for someone else, it temporarily distracts you from your own vulnerability. And that’s what happened to me. I performed for Ethan.
Andrew: What I have learned on my journey, Seymour, is that authentic service is selfless, attuned to others completely and not to any private agenda. So you were truly serving Ethan and honoring him and all he had done for you. It reminds me of something a Buddhist sage, Saraha, is said to have written: “This is myself and that is another. Be free of this illusion of separation which imprisons you and your own self is thereby released.”
You released yourself by devoting what you did to Ethan.
Seymour: Yes, Andrew, I played every note to Ethan. Now that it’s over, I wonder what would have happened had I stopped playing in sheer panic. I wonder if Ethan contemplated this. If so, he must have been more relieved than I was when it was over, and that it had been a success. At the end of the recital, we had a little discussion with the audience about finding one’s identity and nervousness. And then it seemed as though the entire audience came over to me at once.
Finally it was time to leave. Ethan and I walked arm in arm across Fifty-Seventh Street to the Russian Tea Room. Ramsey, the cinematographer, filmed us from behind. When I saw the documentary, those shots weren’t included. The staff was secretly saving those shots. They’re going to include the entire recital on DVD after the documentary, and our victory walk to the Russian Tea Room will close the entire presentation.
Andrew: How beautiful! It’s lovely to hear you talk about that recital and that moment of calm and how you played the recital for Ethan, because it really deepens my understanding of why people come to you with such joy at the end of the film.
Seymour: It fills me with humility and with enormous gratitude. I believe that when audiences see the documentary, they will respond to my message. In spite of the fact that I’m not a genius, there must be something in my presentation that inspires people. I believe it gives them courage to pursue their gifts, even though they are not geniuses. We can only do the best we can with what we are endowed with.
Andrew: What you’re conveying is the absolute importance of owning one’s deepest passion and living it. This has nothing to do with whether you’re a genius or not; this has everything to do with whether you’re going to fulfill the meaning of being on the earth or not.
Seymour: And to do it with whatever gifts you have.
Andrew: I remember you telephoned me after the film’s opening in Telluride and said that after they’d seen it, people fell into your arms in tears of appreciation. You must’ve understood that something rich and deep was going on in the film.
Seymour: Both Ethan and I were completely stunned. We couldn’t believe that people would be so moved. As you know, a year has gone by, with lots of screenings, rave reviews, and accolades. A repeated response from the people who come up to me after the screenings is “I’m not a musician, and I don’t know anything about music, but everything you say in the documentary concerns me.”
I believe it means that some people don’t take seriously enough the activities that interest them, the activities that spring from their individual talents. It doesn’t have to be music; it could be anything, anything for which they have a passion. Another is, there are people who had a passion for something, and gave it up. For example, a woman came up to me during the intermission of a concert in New York and said, “I saw your film, and I used to be a writer. I haven’t written for ten years. But after seeing your film, I awakened the next morning and started to write again.” Something in the film lets people know that it’s not too late. Here I am at eighty-eight, and I’m still going strong.
I keep saying over and over again in the Q & A sessions what scientists tell us: that, barring brain damage, the older we get, the more capacity we have for learning. In other words, we can therefore achieve even more progress in older age than when we were younger. Now that the documentary has gone global, this message is being projected to more people than I can imagine. It inspires some people to have the courage to pick up the remnants of their passions—if they’ve abandoned them—rekindle them and make themselves happy again.
Play Life More Beautifully releases this week in hardcover format. Filled with trusted conversations between dear friends reveals key truths about passion and creativity.