Back to Piano Education Home Page

Artist/Educator Archive Interview - Seymour Bernstein




e regularly feature the personal experiences and insights of a noted artist/educator on various aspects of piano performance and education. You may not always agree with the opinions expressed, but we think you will find them interesting and informative. The opinions offered here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent those of the West Mesa Music Teachers Association, its officers, or members. (We have attorneys, too!). At the end of the interview, you'll find hypertext links to the interviewee's e-mail and Web sites (where available), so you can learn more if you're interested. Except where otherwise noted, the interviewer is Dr. John Zeigler.



The June 1996 artist/educator:

Seymour Bernstein, Associate Professor of Piano, New York University, New York, NY, USA

"Seymour Bernstein Triumphs at the Piano"

(Donal Hanehan, The New York Times)

Seymour Bernstein has accrued scores of "triumphs" in a variety of activities. He studied with such notable musicians as Alexander Brailowsky, Sir Clifford Curzon, Jan Gorbaty, Nadia Boulanger and Georges Enesco, both in this country and in Europe. His prizes and grants include the First Prize and Prix Jacques Durand from the international competition held at Fontainebleau, France, the National Federation of Music Clubs Award For Furthering American Music Abroad, a Beebe Foundation grant, two Martha Baird Rockefeller grants and four State Department grants. His concert career has taken him to Asia, Europe and throughout the Americas where he has appeared in solo recitals and as guest artist with orchestras and chamber music groups. In 1969, he made his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing the world premiere of Concerto No. 2 by Villa-Lobos.

Acclaimed for his "...technical brilliance and penetrating interpretive skills," Seymour Bernstein is also an internationally known writer, composer, teacher and lecturer. Many of his piano works continue to be on the "best seller" list. His books, With Your Own Two Hands (also published in German, Japanese and Korean), 20 Lessons in Keyboard Choreography (published in German), the children's version, Musi-Physi-Cality (published in Japanese) and his videotape, You and the Piano, have been hailed by critics as "...firsts of their kind," and "...landmarks in music education." In constant demand for master classes and educational programs, he is one of the most sought after clinicians in this country and abroad. Performances of his piano works have earned him awards from ASCAP.

Seymour Bernstein maintains a private studio in New York City. In addition, he is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Piano at New York University.

Photo by Carolyn Bross

PEP: What made you go into music?

My love affair with music and the piano began when I was three. As it happened, my parents took me to visit Aunt Ethel, my father's sister. There I discovered my first piano, an old out-of-tune upright. Reaching up to the keyboard as best as I could, I depressed one key after another. Instantly, it seemed that my whole world was contained in the sounds that emanated from that instrument. Repeated visits to Aunt Ethel brought with them waves of inspiration such as I can hardly describe. Three years later, when I was six, friends of the family gave us their upright piano. To have an instrument all to myself was the greatest of luxuries. Piano lessons began shortly after that. We all know that life influences the way we make music. But as I soon discovered, it can work the other way around: music study and performance can influence life. Around the age of fifteen, I knew for certain that when my practicing went well, I left the piano with a sense of well-being that stayed with me the entire day. The result was that I was a better son, a better friend and a better student in school. On the other hand, when I was confused and unproductive at the piano, everything else I did was adversely affected. In short, my practicing became a barometer for everything else I did.

I would go so far as to say that my musical and creative talents have always dictated the course of my life. In another sense, music has always served as a refuge from those situations in life which are not altogether harmonious. So long as I am immersed in music, I feel protected and enriched.

PEP: Who were the most influential piano teachers during your student days?

I had many teachers, but two were particularly influential: one was Clara G. Husserl, the other was Sir Clifford Curzon. Clara Husserl was a pupil of the famed Viennese pedagogue, Theodore Leschetizky. I studied with her in Newark, NJ when I was fourteen. Her passion for music, her belief in my talent and her beautiful playing, all motivated my best efforts. Later, in my twenties, Sir Clifford Curzon was my musical idol. Lessons with him in London and in New York City carried me to new heights of achievement. Sir Clifford graced these shores biennially. During his stay in New York City, which lasted approximately one month, I was privileged to be with him almost every evening in the basement of Steinway. There I helped him choose a piano for his forthcoming appearances and sat spellbound while he ran through his repertoire. And what playing it was! Suffice it to say that I never heard anything like it either before or since. Perhaps my greatest thrill was accompanying Sir Clifford at the second piano during his concerti rehearsals. I was around thirty, when one evening he paused for a moment and inquired, "Now what did you think of that phrase?" At first I thought this was simply a gesture on his part to make me feel more at home. For in truth I was in awe of him. But as I subsequently discovered, he was sincere in wanting my opinion, and so I did actually discuss the shaping of that phrase in question. By the time K. 495 by Mozart had come to an end, he had elicited my opinion on dozens of other phrases. To my utter surprise, he actually implemented my suggestions the following evening during his performance with the New York Philharmonic in Avery Fisher Hall. This switching of roles between teacher and pupil lasted until his death. Sir Clifford, like many great artists, remained the proverbial student throughout his life. His humility in the face of his art was a lesson unto itself..

PEP: What do you enjoy most about making and teaching music?

The whole process of practicing for performances has always been more stimulating to me than the performances themselves. It is a time for communing with the great composers who have left us a legacy of beauty and profundity. I have the feeling that they speak to me through a wordless language. They whisper secrets in my ear. It is then a privilege to share those secrets with others. Similarly, I enjoy rehearsals with colleagues. Few things are more stimulating than sharing musical ideas with other musicians. If I were to evaluate all of the things I have done in life and place them in a hierarchical order, I would unhesitatingly place teaching on the top of the list. I feel that it is the one thing I do best. To impart knowledge and, occasionally, revelations to another person is, for me, one of the most gratifying aspects of being a musician. What greater reward can there be than to know that you have influenced your pupils' progress, and that you have helped them to grow through a language which ultimately affects everything they do. Quite obviously, the advice I give my pupils represents an accumulation of a lifetime of practicing and performing. With this in mind, the following phrase, "Those who can, do, those who can't, teach," desecrates the sacred art of teaching. Moreover it is a phrase that has contributed more guilt, confusion and insecurity to more teachers than one can imagine. If the phrase had any credibility at all, then we would have to conclude that Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, to mention only three virtuoso composers, taught because they could not "do."

PEP: Do you use any of the piano "methods" in your teaching? If so, do you prefer one over the other?

I must admit that I am prejudiced in favor of my own books and methods. Far more important than our choice of methods is the manner in which we practice them. Hanon, for example, which has for more than a century carried with it the stigma of boredom, can be exceedingly rewarding when approached both musically and with a variety of choreographic movements. Most experienced performers and teachers agree that no single method is suitable to all students. Because each student is unique, teachers ought to tailor their methodological approach to the student, and not the other way around. Some pupils, for instance, with natural facility, never have to practice scales and arpeggios. Other pupils need supplementary material beyond the pieces they are working on. A lot depends on the repertoire we happen to be working on and the time allotted to our practicing. Because students in school and adults who are in other professions have limited time in which to practice, they must be economical both in their choice of technical work and the number of pieces they choose to practice. The "naturals" notwithstanding, all other music students must maintain a certain technical regimen if they are to serve music faithfully. In other words, we have to stay in form, as athletes do. After high school, I had unlimited time in which to practice. When my repertoire lacked passage work, I spent around an hour on scales and arpeggios and alternated between various methods, such as the Phillip, Liszt and Brahms exercises - and yes, even Hanon. At other times, when the technical demands of my repertoire provided ample challenges, I was then able to dispense with preliminary technical work. Frankly speaking, I look upon certain pieces in the repertoire as methods in themselves, methods in which we are put to the most stringent test, both musically and technically.

Children, however, require a carefully planned technical regimen, including made-to-order exercises which some teachers devise for them.

PEP: What "deficiency" in training or technique do you most often find in students of the piano?

Because music is fundamentally an aural experience, one would think that developing pitch sensitivity through singing would be the sine qua non in early music training. Yet, as I have discovered, the majority of young music students today can neither sing nor play the simplest interval by ear. The problem is far worse in America than it is in European and Asian countries. And why? With few exceptions, American students are rarely introduced to solfege (sight-singing) as a prerequisite to instrumental training. Because of a lack of ear consciousness, few students have a sensitivity to intervalic relationships, or, to put it more simply, pitch identification. A simple experiment proves how severe this problem can be. Ask your students to choose a melodic piece that is secure in their memory. Now using the "hunt and peck" system, ask them to pick out the opening theme with the index finger of the left hand, which normally does not play the melody. Using the left hand breaks the dependency on the reflex system, which I call the automatic pilot. Unless a student has perfect pitch or good relative pitch, the chances are that difficulties will arise almost immediately. Embarrassing as it is, such students discover that , 1) their musical ear is dysfunctional, and 2) they rely exclusively on their automatic pilot when playing from memory. A few minutes a day of picking out melodies in this fashion will activate the hearing function and enable students to develop a sensitivity to pitch relationships. For after all, the ear ought to be the mainstay of memory. A more serious flaw in music education today is a general indifference to creativity. As of the twentieth century, the composer and the performer parted company. Previously it was unthinkable to perform without composing, as the great composers of the past have proved by doing both. No activity that I know of demands more of an intense confrontation with our inner world than does the process of creating something. For musicians, composing enables us to enter into the creative process of the composers whose music we practice and perform.

PEP: What would you advise students and teachers of the piano to avoid?

Never practice mechanically. Try to make music out of even the simplest exercise. Making music means to involve yourself emotionally at every moment of your practicing. Of course you must consciously suspend emotion from time to time while examining a fingering or a technical challenge. At such times you consciously turn off the switch to your emotional current. But once you have matters under control, throw the switch on again and consciously infuse each and every phrase with an emotional intention. Emotional responses to music are expressed by means of carefully controlled dynamics and an indestructible pulse that caters to rubato in just the right proportions. All of these things are fed into your automatic pilot by means of choreographic movements. It is thus that you make a physical connection to musical feeling. It is important, therefore, to infuse all of your technical work with specific dynamics, tempi and rhythms. Simply pretend that scales, arpeggios and exercises are beautiful melodies. Keep in mind one thing: dynamic indications, such as piano and forte, do not merely connote different intensities of sound; rather, they ought to arouse associative emotional responses, such as tenderness or excitement. The same may be said of different tempi. In 1817, Beethoven wrote in a letter to Ignaz von Mosel, a music critic in Vienna, expressing discontent "in regard to the terms designating the measure of time that were handed down to us when music was still in an age of barbarism. For instance, what could be more meaningless than Allegro, which definitely means merry." Similarly, Adagio does not merely indicate a slow tempo, but rather a feeling of profundity. To sum up, then, all dynamic and tempo indications, and, for that matter, all notational indications have emotional connotations.

PEP: What advice would you give to students of the piano?

While you practice, be aware that you are creating a synthesis of feeling, thought and physical coordination. Since virtually every activity in life engages feelings, thoughts and physical movements in various combinations, it is reasonable to assume that this synthesis achieved musically can be directed into other channels as well, thereby fortifying you for all of life's demands. In other words, through an organized and consistent process of practicing, it ought to be possible to harmonize everything you think, feel and do.

The organizational aspects of music epitomize the very order and harmony you seek in yourself and in your relationships with others. By applying yourself to music through productive and consistent practicing, you can establish within yourself that same order and harmony you find in music. As this process of practicing unfolds, you grasp it, absorb it, and relate it to your every activity.

Here are some additional suggestions:

1) Devote part of your time at the piano to improvisation and composing. Here is a challenge for you: compose an original composition for your next audition or recital.
2) Sight read everyday. The ability to sight read brings you to the gestalt (the wholeness) of a composition.
3) Always have tryouts before an audition or a recital. For no matter how well prepared you may feel during your practicing, performing for others will reveal any weak spots that may otherwise have escaped you notice. Performing for others is, after all, a skill unto itself.

PEP: What advice would you give to teachers of the piano or of music in general?

Music study and performance is not simply an avocation or a pleasurable pastime; it is a way of life. One does not have to aspire to a career in music in order to be a devoted student of music and to perform on the highest level. The finest teaching encourages a dedication to practicing that leads toward self-realization. Motivated by a love of music and a clear understanding of the reasons for practicing, music students, regardless of their age or degree of accomplishment, can establish so deep an accord between their musical selves and their personal selves that eventually music and life interact in a never-ending cycle of fulfillment. What are the right reasons for studying music? I have tried to address this question in my book, With Your Own Two Hands. As I see it, devoted musicians serve music just as religious people serve God, namely, out of love and reverence. Devoted practicers are prepared to do whatever music requires of them, whatever the difficulties and however long it takes. Their reward transcends even the ability to master music on an instrument. For productive practicing can harmonize the person as well as the musician and actually lead toward the integration of the personality.

PEP: Can you give us your reflections upon music as a career?

I have written a new book called Surviving a Career in Music (I am, at the moment, looking for a publisher.) I believe I have survived because, 1) I worked at music for the reasons stated above, and 2) because I have tried to practice as productively as possible. At the same time, I saw in music an opportunity to conquer my weaknesses and fears, especially the one fear which plagues most performers - pre-performance anxiety. As I gained courage on the stage and actually survived performances, I developed confidence in all of the other areas of my life. I then felt encouraged to tackle more challenging pieces and to perform in more auspicious settings. Since I am convinced that an in depth study of music ought to result in a desire to make one's own statement, it was only natural for me to direct my energies towards composing, writing and giving educational-type programs, disciplines which have added greatly to my general development. Thus my career branched out in many directions. Perhaps the chief benefit to be derived from a lifetime of faithful practicing is the knowledge that you have given life the best fight you know how. To put it quite simply, self-development through productive practicing makes you feel good about yourself. This in turn triggers a desire to relate outside of yourself for the sole purpose of contributing to others. When we give to others, and when we are good at what we do, careers sometimes find us.

PEP: What does it take to be a "successful" musician or music educator?

Major careers are the domain of only the most exceptionally gifted musicians. Performers who qualify for major careers are imbued with profound interpretive skills, perfect pitch or excellent relative pitch, keen intellects and a healthy nervous system. This does not rule out the right of less gifted musicians to perform as often as possible, provided that what they perform and where they perform are compatible with their gifts. But far too many musicians have delusions of grandeur in terms of the stage. Striving for goals beyond our reach can be counter-productive, and demoralizing as well.

One goal in living is to know our strengths and weaknesses, and to do something about the latter. None of us can know enough about music, not to mention the overwhelming task of learning about ourselves. If we succeed in fusing together the musician with the person, then it follows that confronting music through practicing and performing is analogous to confronting ourselves. Like Sir Clifford Curzon, we should all be students in the face of our art. Nothing, of course, is more important than knowing our subject thoroughly. Indeed, scientia est potentia (knowledge is power). The more we know, the more predictable will be our success in whatever we choose to do. Musicians certainly have more career options than focusing exclusively on solo performing. Teaching, accompanying, playing chamber music, composing and writing about music - all of these things are open to musicians. Provided we engage in some or all of these activities, how then can we measure our success, or lack of it? It comes down to this: we must differentiate between society's estimation of us and the real truth about ourselves, which only we know. As Sir Clifford Curzon once told me, "Our own inner voice tells us all we need to know." Success, therefore, is often a nebulous thing. It can even be thrust upon individuals undeservedly. Personally, I feel successful when I am able to play, teach, compose and write a little better each day.

PEP: What are your views on competitions and what should teachers and students expect from them?

On the one hand, losing a competition can diminish one's self-esteem; on the other hand, nothing can be more devastating than being a winner one year, and then being dropped from a manager's roster the following year in order to make room for the next winner.

As I see it, the only rewarding aspect of competitions is that they motivate our best practicing, as do all performances. Whether we win a competition or not, one thing is predictable: by applying ourselves to all that music demands of us and attempting to measure up to the highest level of performance, our playing improves, our self-esteem rises and we enjoy the glow of accomplishment which affects everything else we do. For as I said earlier, our musical development often acts as a barometer for the non-musical aspects of our lives. To be able to do today what we could not do yesterday is far more rewarding than winning prizes or getting rave reviews.

PEP: In the face of all of society's distractions, what kinds of things can the teacher do to maintain a child's interest in taking piano lessons?

Teachers can infuse children with a love of music by teaching them the finest repertoire. Performing classes, arranged by teachers, afford students the opportunity to hear new repertoire and to measure their progress against the accomplishments of their peers. Occasionally, teachers ought to perform for their students, if not entire pieces, then at least parts of them. This would motivate busy teachers to continue to practice, if only minimally. Above all, teachers must urge parents to have the finest music played in the home. What can elevate children more than awakening to the profundity of The Saint Matthew Passion by Bach, or the Ninth Symphony by Beethoven, to cite only two masterpieces. In addition, there is nothing like observing a live concert. To children, good performers are like heroes who accomplish monumental tasks.

PEP: What can we do as musicians to interest more people, children in particular, in good music?

As I suggested above, an interest in music invariably begins in the home. Music weaves its magic spell without explanations and even when we are not consciously listening to it. For interestingly enough, music affects the part of our brain which causes us to respond involuntarily This, in fact, is the basis of music therapy. In other words, the goodness inherent in music will implant itself in the mind without thought. Conversely, vulgar music can have a deleterious effect upon the minds of young people. No one was more intimate with the therapeutic properties of music than were the ancient Greeks.

I should like now to give some advice to parents concerning their children's practicing . Some parents have a distorted notion of the role which music lessons play in their children's lives. Instead of viewing music education as being just as important to one's total development as are certain subjects in school, they submissively allow their children to decide whether they wish to practice or not. "If Wendy loves it, then she'll practice. If she doesn't feel like practicing, then I won't force her to do anything she dislikes."

To begin with, most children are incapable of deciding what is best for them. And as everyone knows, doing distasteful things can often benefit us more than anything else. In regard to Wendy, would she awaken on a weekday morning and dare to announce to her parents that she does not feel like going to school? And even if she did, her parents would never cater to her whim. For after all, it is unthinkable not to go to school each day. Similarly, if parents accepted the fact that music lessons are just as important to a child's growth as are subjects in school, then their children would have nothing to say in the matter. They would not question a pre-determined schedule of practicing anymore than they would question their daily attendance in school.

PEP: Pretend this is your personal soapbox. What would you like to say to students, parents, and teachers of the piano?

Music encapsulates in its language the universal order of things and transmutes its awesome dimensions into an experience that is immediate and comprehensible. Without words, music speaks concordantly to a troubled world, dispelling loneliness and discontent, its voice discovering in us those deep recesses of thought and feeling where truth implants itself. Being able to reproduce music with our own two hands reveals to us what is noblest in our nature. How? By giving us the opportunity to separate ourselves from sham and pretense. Music offers no quarter for compromise - no excuses, no subterfuge, no shoddy workmanship. We perform the way we practice. In the end, we ought to participate in creation itself - by conceiving our own music.  

Page created: 5/21/96
Last updated: 01/30/15
Site Policies Credits About Feedback Reprinting

Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1,
Copyright 1995-2016 John M. Zeigler. All rights reserved.