“When my practicing went well, everything else in life seemed to be harmonized by that. When my practicing didn’t go well, I was out of sorts with people, with my parents. So I concluded that the true essence of who we are resides in our talent, whatever talent there is.”
My life has been motivated and consumed by talent; pursuing it in myself, seeking to emphasize it in others, understanding its power and importance within each individual. I’m a talent manager because I feel deeply that talent in all of its forms has a tremendous power to improve the world, to move each of us to positive action.
This ethos is probably what made me fall in love with Ethan Hawke’s documentary, Seymour: An Introduction. It contains so many lessons that apply to both acting and life.
Through the film, retired concert pianist Seymour Bernstein serves as a spiritual, artistic, supremely experienced guide towards the essence of talent and how those who possess it must craft, hone, and relate to it like an extension of their own being.
While Seymour is specifically a musician, he is broadly an artist, and his wisdom and commentary are absolutely essential for any aspiring creative — especially actors.
I feel this blog will carry more weight if I use the words of Seymour himself.
“Motivated by a love of music and possessed of a clear understanding of the reasons for practicing you can establish so deep an accord between your musical self and your personal self that eventually music and life will interact in a never-ending cycle of fulfillment.”
A recurring theme in the documentary and in Seymour’s career is the importance of craft.
Appropriately, the documentary begins with Seymour himself practicing, hard at work, slowly playing and re-playing the same octave trying to get it perfect. He speaks to himself, coaching himself as he’s done countless times with his students and, frankly, it’s beautiful. To see a person of such great talent struggle with an individual note — something insignificant yet crucial — and patiently push himself over this bump is humbling.
Actors know these moments well, having gone through them countless times while reading a script, researching, personalizing, and rehearsing. It takes work for actors to appear free and effortless when they perform. That marriage of technique and natural ability is what creates a great artist.
Novice actors have a tendency to focus on a final performance rather than the hours of practice, the innumerable failures both major and minor, that go into that ultimate success.
In Seymour’s patience, you see true talent. It’s easy to forget that talent isn’t only natural; it’s developed. Even the masters must remain patient and persistent to stay atop their craft.
As Seymour says, “without the craft, there isn’t any real artistry.”
That’s an invaluable lesson for any actor.
“If you feel inadequate as a musician, then you’re going to feel inadequate as a person.”
Talent is inextricably linked with character. When you have talent, when it becomes your profession, it consumes you and makes you who you are. As Ethan Hawke explains in the film, before he met Seymour he was suffering from crippling stage fright that made it exceedingly difficult for him to perform. Seymour helped to straighten him out.
Most artists aren’t nervous enough according to Seymour. The nerves demonstrate the care and devotion you’ve dedicated to your talent and reflect that you’ve done the work.
Nerves are good. They’re your gauge for how serious you are and how much you love your work. Listen to them and let them inform your performances.
“The most important thing that music teachers can do for their pupils is inspire and encourage an emotional response not just from music but, more importantly, for all aspects of life.”
The film is peppered throughout with clips of Seymour working with students.
He’s extremely attentive, a perfectionist certainly but not nitpicky — he just has an impeccable ear for beauty and enduring patience to coax it out. While Seymour says to avoid excess analysis in practice, as a teacher he takes on that burden. He insists that students let the music reveal its own beauty uniquely to them while he focuses on the analysis.
I hope you find an acting teacher you can trust in this way. When you are training (and working) as an actor, you can’t truly be free enough to do your best work if you are watching yourself as you act.
The more you train with a good teacher, the better you will become at analyzing what worked and what didn’t AFTER you perform. Your “bs meter”(as many actors call it), will get stronger the more you train.
However, when you’re working, you can’t focus on how you’re doing. Your focus has to be in the circumstances of the scene. Let your teacher, coach, or director worry about the analysis.
“It’s the greatest compliment to someone when you really say the truth, and don’t just say what you expect them to say.”
I’ve always felt this way as well, which is why I pride myself on giving honest feedback (some may say too honest). Everyone can use honest feedback, especially actors.
You need truth in your life as an actor. The entire profession is the creation of truth. If you aren’t getting honest, true feedback, you can’t grow.
I’ve become obsessed with this documentary. As you know by now, when I’m moved by something, I have to share it. I could not recommend this film more highly for anyone, but especially for actors and others in creative professionals.
Truly, it’s worth it just to see Seymour test pianos in Steinway’s performance selection hall.