How To Be Great

Work in progress is progressing


Recently I went to see a movie about a piano virtuoso: Seymour: An Introduction. It’s a documentary about Seymour Bernstein, an 85 year-old pianist who gave up performing and now concentrates on teaching high-level students. Bernstein is truly fascinating and even after an entire film, I wanted to know more about him

Two qualities of his personality really stood out for me. First, as a teacher, he was able to make subtle tweaks in his students’ piano technique that made the music infinitely better and more moving. It’s a level of knowledge and sensitivity that even someone like me, who knows nothing about classical music, could appreciate.

Second, he has this huge love for classical piano music—an obsession so enormous that it blinds him to normal perceptions. For example, when he was drafted into the army, it was a complete mismatch for a sensitive boy who had never left home. But he found himself able to march for hours while others fell away, and he attributed that to the mental concentration he had learned from music. And when he found that there was a classical strings player in his troop in Europe, he suggested to his commanding officer that they could do performances. The C.O. scoffed that nobody would listen to classical music. But when Bernstein prevailed, the troops loved the concert. “They wouldn’t let us go,” he remembered happily.

When I saw the movie, about a month ago, I was going through a slump in my work. I had been painting, but I seemed to be stuck. The work for my big exhibition in May was well underway, but nowhere near completion. Therefore, one thing that Bernstein said made an especially big impact on me. He said that on the days when the music went well he was happy. Conversely, he was frustrated on those days when the music didn’t go well. His solution was to practise more, from two hours to three, right up to eight hours of practising.

This solution seems so logical, yet it’s contrary to the laziness inherent in many of us. If the painting isn’t going well, it’s easy to take a break and do something else—check Instagram, have a snack, go for a walk, cook dinner. Perhaps these distractions are even good or useful, but they move us away from the main purpose of our lives. If you want to excel at an art, it will never be easy. An artist will have to put long hours of work into their craft. Sometimes there will be setbacks and screw-ups, but you will keep moving forward. And as Bernstein said, on those good days, you will be happy. The best kind of happy, when you are satisfied with your important life's work.

Thanks, Seymour! The next day, I went into the studio and began working harder. I locked my smarthphone in the car, stopped puttering, and just got down to painting. And you know what? I was able to push my paintings into completed stages immediately. And now I’m happy.