Seymour Bernstein’s take on Pianist, Glenn Gould

Seymour picSeymour: An Introduction, produced by Ethan Hawke, is making the rounds through a series of reputable film festivals. Recently screened in Telluride (Colorado) and soon to make its Toronto, Canada debut followed by a Lincoln Center touchdown, the 81-minute documentary has scooped up a Sundance Selection and amassed rave reviews along its way. (Hollywood Reporter and Wall Street Journal)

Seymour Bernstein, a newly baptized Music Messiah and movie star, is now a hot ticket interview subject, drawing a corps of salivating reporters to interview him. So not surprisingly, Toronto Globe writer, Brad Wheeler, corralled the Maestro for his opinions about Canadian pianist icon, Glenn Gould. (The exchange is printed below)

A gentle genius (just don’t ask him about Glenn Gould)

The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Sep. 05 2014, 2:49 PM EDT
Last updated Friday, Sep. 05 2014, 2:51 PM EDT
TFF (Toronto Film Festival)

With the TIFF film Seymour: An Introduction, director Ethan Hawke (the actor) has made an intimate documentary portrait of the classical pianist, sage and music teacher. Mr. Bernstein, 85, is seen as soulful, gentle and charismatic, but rather feisty when it comes to Glenn Gould. We asked the titular Seymour about the iconic but complicated Canadian pianist, who is the subject of the Soulpepper production Glenn, which happens to be currently playing in repertory at the Young Centre.

“In the film about you, you describe Glenn Gould as a ‘“total neurotic mess.”’ But how would you assess his playing?”

Seymour: He’s an acknowledged genius in his absorption and his technical acumen in performing, especially the works of Bach. For starters, I want to tell you that I never heard him play anything beautifully, apart from Bach. His recordings of the Mozart sonatas are outrageous, and a slap in the face to serious musicians. If I had him here I would punch him.

Come now. You appreciate his Bach, don’t you?

S: I can admire what he does, but here is the bottom line: When I listen to Glenn Gould play Bach, I’m not aware that I’m listening to Bach at all. I’m only listening to Glenn Gould. That’s the difference between the great, great artists and Glenn Gould, who infuses the music with his own neurotic nature. So that comes out to you, but not Bach.

But isn’t the neurotic nature of Gould something that fascinates people?

S: Let them be fascinated. I’m not. [Laughs] We’re all different, though. We’re all entitled to respond the way we wish, right?

Fair enough. In the film, you speak about the harmony that musicians attain through training and developing their craft, not just in their music but in their life over all. Do you feel Gould reached that harmony?

S: I think the more he practiced the more neurotic he got. I don’t think he reached harmony at all. He certainly didn’t seem like a harmonious person. I once heard him in New York do a lecture and performance. He was spewing forth what I believe was sheer nonsense, just to befuddle the audience.

Sounds like Bob Dylan. So, when you come to Toronto for the film, I take it you won’t be posing on the bronze statue of Glenn Gould sitting on the bench we have in front of the CBC headquarters.

S: Chances are that I won’t. [Laughs] Listen, this is risky business. My documentary is pretty sour on Glenn Gould. I wonder if the audience will be angry with me.

The TIFF film Seymour: An Introduction screens Sept 10, 7 p.m., TIFF Bell Lightbox; Sept. 11, 4:45 p.m., Isabel Bader Theatre; Sept. 13, 9:30 a.m., TIFF Bell Lightbox. Soulpepper’s Glenn plays to Oct. 1. $29 to $89. Young Centre, 50 Tank House Lane, 416-866-8666 or

Follow Brad Wheeler on Twitter: @BWheelerglobe

Just want to say that I do not agree with what Seymour said about Gould. I regard Gould as a genius.. mostly in the realm of the J.S. Bach universe. And I don’t think anyone’s neurosis has anything to do with their playing. That’s none of my or anyone’s business. I was not a big fan of Gould’s Mozart or Brahms because it sounded eccentric in tempo, nuance, etc.. And sometimes he would say he did what he did, “to be different,” which is not a premise I concur with. It seems like the composer’s intent comes first.. But as for Bach, and especially the Bach D minor concerto and Partitas, plus the Goldberg Variations, the man was indeed a genius, and we can’t forget that.


From Maine with Love

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Piano Technique: Split-Screen, rolling 4-note arpeggios (C# minor; B minor)

I love to work with students on 4-note arpeggios through inversions, prompting them to ROLL into horizontal, curvaceous groups of notes to avoid up and down finger poking.

The elements of visualization (“imagining” motion SHAPES); kinesthetic translation (counterclockwise arm motions) attentive listening, CENTERING, and relaxed, natural breathing, all work in harmony to produce a smooth, unencumbered journey over a series of octaves. (Hands are spaced by two)

In the attached video, a motivated student explores the keys of C# minor, and B minor, feeling his way through a broken chord landscape– absorbing ways to improve the playing experience as he moves along.

C# minor

C# E G# C#; E G# C# E, G# C# E G#; C# E G# C#

Fingering RH:
1, 2, 3, 5; 1, 2, 4, 5; 1, 2, 3, 5: 1, 2, 3, 5
5, 4, 2, 1: 5, 4, 2, 1; 5, 3, 2 1: 5, 4, 2, 1

B minor

B D F# B; D F# B D; F# B D F#; B D F# D

RH and LH Fingering same as for C# minor

BONUS TUTORIAL on PREP for ROLLING 4-note Arpeggios

on all BLACK KEYS: F# Major

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Piano Teacher Stories from the War Zone! (Part One)

So many of us in the field of teaching can hearken back to our earliest piano student years and flesh out a particular individual who was the “worst” teacher to ever come our way. In my case, it was my second teacher who earned the distinction of being the most inept mentor on record, though she was an admirably accomplished player.

Louise Milota, a pianist, teacher, duo partner, and former long-standing President of our MTAC Alameda Branch, dipped into her memory archive and retrieved details of her colorful music journey in St. John, Canada. It included a near drowning of her dreams to be a pianist before her ultimate rescue.

A serendipitous conversation with Louise followed our rehearsal of Schubert’s F minor Fantasie.

It’s worth a listen:


My Eurhythmics-centered interview with Louise at the San Francisco Conservatory

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J.S. Bach Invention No. 13 in A minor: A Continuing Journey

Students who embark upon learning the beautifully woven Invention 13, have new awakenings about the Subject and its thread of sequences and development through three pages. And as they explore two independent, though complementary voices in counterpoint, they discover that the Subject and what pieces of it are borrowed as the music plays out, have a pivotal bearing on how they communicate the essence of the composer’s work.

In the video attached, an adult student and I probe various dimensions of the Subject and devise an inter-weaving choreography that best realizes its character and unfolding (through sequences, inversions, modulations, etc.)

J.S. Bach Invention 13 in A minor

J.S. Bach Invention 13 in A minor p. 2

Work on the last phrase to final cadence:

Bach A minor Invention p. 3 last two lines

Play through in tempo:

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Piano Technique: Psychological and physical approaches to staccato (Video)

Today’s romp in F# minor (melodic form) brought new awakenings in the universe of bouncy staccato through scales and arpeggios–(in big Forte projection, followed by a soft, piano range rendering)

Within the psychological universe where mental images abound, catchwords like “THINKING UP” through rapid fire 32nds, kept the notes percolating without falling down FLAT with IMPACT.

The deterrent to crashing down, was the suggestion to LIFT UP. (with CRISP releases)

In the physical cosmos, using CUPPED hands, with a slightly lowered wrist, delivered a FOREARM-driven staccato packed with punch, but NOT the kind landing between the eyes. The Notes sprang out and UP (once again) with an appealing energy that seemed to have a contagious thread from start to finish–One note bounced into the another.

The forearm generated staccato, could just as easily have been lowered in volume by channeling less arm weight, though still preserving CONSISTENCY across the scale terrain. (Cupped hands and lowered wrists remained old standbys)

With a wrist-driven staccato, notes were STYLED and GROUPED during the scale journey in wavy, snipped forms.

And once off to a fancy-free ARPEGGIO space, the romp consisted ofrolling triplets in legato (smooth and connected) as the CONTOURED model for staccato. In TRIPLET framing, the hands were thrown gracefully forward with GROUPED wrist ROLLS, while fingers became lengthened. (Cups were tossed)

The character of TRIPLETS had considerably altered the landscape requiring supple wrist motions in all articulations whether legato or staccato.

So not only having muscle memory was useful for a player, but snatching mental cues to support animated, ebullient energy could have a lasting effect on staccato playing in many contexts.

Below: A Piano Lesson by Skype to London

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Piano Technique: Respiration NOT perspiration

My students remind me to breathe long, natural breaths when playing through scales and arpeggios from moderate to brisk tempos. Through a selective process of elimination, we’ve collectively come to the conclusion that SWEATING it out, or driving technique to the ground, gritting teeth, or otherwise fighting a noteworthy terrain is counter-productive. In the final analysis, PERSPIRATION is not an option, but RESPIRATION (the kind that settles into a karmic ebb and flow) is our CENTRAL focus.

Most scales and arpeggios are most vulnerable to tension at the start, and at the turnaround in highest octave and back. A student might breathe easily into the body of these figures, but have bouts of edginess along the route, especially when the going is good. Or they might manage to skid around the bend only to careen anxiously into the final 8 notes down, in a BREATH-TAKING marathon finish.

I’ve noticed that the TURNAROUND at the top is most vulnerable, often coming with a nerve pile-up that stops playing in its tracks.

Face it, students in this quagmire, are dealing with short breaths and anticipatory anxiety when playing in faster tempos so as remedy, BREATH CONTROL should be as central to practicing as absorbing fingering and scale/arpeggio organizers.

In this video, a student explores the cosmos of breathing through brisk legato and staccato passages.

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Shaping a J.S. Bach Two-Part Invention

Many students play J.S. Bach’s music with a typed out, articulated approach, forgetting to shape and contour phrases.

In Bach’s F Major Invention, BWV 779, the tendency is to overemphasize every element of broken chord F, A, C, F, in a perfunctory detachment, when musically the line tells us otherwise. Because the very first note of the SUBJECT “F” falls on an OFF beat, (since there’s an opening 8th rest), it defers to the third of the triad, A, and as the arpeggio unwinds, the fleshed out notes become A, C, F (with common tones F below played with a subdued thumb) Certainly a spring forward wrist helps contour a triadic ascent to destination high F without thumps, and it cushions the fall upon arrival on HIGH F.

J.S. Bach Invention 8 in F Major, p. 1

The descending scale-like figure which represents the second part of the SUBJECT, likewise can fall down with a flattened profile.

As remedy, GROUPING the 16th notes in fours with a flexible wrist can lend shape to them, allowing a singable progression to resolution.

The second idea in measure 4, that contains descending SEQUENCES, requires a ROTATIONAL approach to contour notes through measures 4, 5 and 6. These wrist-driven groupings, with a side-to-side motion, prevent pokey, vertical playing.

In a video sample of a lesson in progress, an adult student makes nice adjustments in his physical/musical approach to J.S. Bach’s Invention 8, BWV 779, that afford a more appealing aesthetic result.

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