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FEATURE | On Lessons In Temperament: Piano Tuning And Mental Health

By Paula Citron on November 12, 2021

James Smith in lessons in Temperament (2021) (Photo: Gabrielo Osio Vanden)

Outside the March Film/Lessons in Temperament, written and performed by James Smith, directed by Mitchell Cushman, cinematography by Gabriela Osio Vanden, Meridian Arts Centre, world premiere in-person screening, Nov. 13. Tickets available at


How supercharged can one family be? James Smith, 36, is a Toronto-based music director, composer/lyricist, performer and sound designer. He grew up in a family of four brothers, all of whom (including Smith) suffer from mental health issues that include obsessive-compulsive disorder (Smith), autism (Joey), bipolar disorder (Josh) and schizophrenia (Jason).

Yet from this fraught family background, Smith developed an acclaimed stage show, that has now, thanks to COVID, been turned into a film that premieres this Saturday.

Smith’s partner is Outside the March Theatre, which, under artistic director Mitchell Cushman, is one of the most adventurous companies in Canada. In 2015, Smith came to Cushman with a concept for a stage show, and Cushman jumped on board the project.

“James’ idea was perfect for my company because of the type of metaphor and theatrical language that he was suggesting,” says Cushman. “He is an excellent storyteller.”

The Stage Show

Smith’s idea was to talk about his troubled family while tuning pianos. The show was totally immersive, taking place in people’s homes. Every performance was in a different venue. In 2016 and 2017, Lessons in Temperament, as the show was called, was performed 29 times. Says Smith, “By allowing us into their homes, people ended up with a tuned piano.”

The scenario of the show rested on the fact that both pianos and mental health share a tenuous nature. As Smith explains, “Just as a piano can never be perfectly tuned, the mind can also suffer from imbalance.”

The stories Smith tells revolve around his observations of his three older brothers. Each brother’s story is given a specific part of the piano as it is tuned. Joey gets the lower and lower middle sections, Josh the upper middle, and Jason the top.

Says Cushman, “We never had an actual script, just notes and an outline. This way, James could act it out as a conversation. It provided flexibility. You can see him processing his thoughts.”

Smith adds, “Having no script meant that I could tell the stories that I see in my head. The audience witnesses my intensity and frustrated silences. Hiding behind a physical task made things easier.”

To develop the scenario, Smith began by writing any and all stories about his brothers on cue cards that he tacked up on a wall. Collectively, that would have meant a six-hour show. Then came the whittling down, the picking and choosing. “We now had a three-hour version that we took to people we trusted,” says Cushman, “and from their responses, came the final stage show.” As a corollary, the audience also learns something about the piano and the art of piano tuning.

In performance, mirrors on the piano (courtesy of designer Nick Blais), gave audiences a picture of Smith’s face, because, obviously, to tune the piano, he had to show his back. The men describe Lessons in Temperament as a theatre piece with little artifice and barely any theatrical elements.

Smith learned the art of piano tuning to earn extra money during lean times as a musician. “It does beat being a waiter,” he says. In fact, Smith has to restrict his piano tuning commitments. He is so much in demand that piano tuning could become a full-time career. He now tunes pianos only for friends and churches.

The Film

The tag line for the film is “4 Brothers, 12 Theatres, 88 Keys, and the Search for Mental Harmony”.

The film of Lessons in Temperament was informed by the pandemic and the forces of isolation. Smith was gearing up for his job as assistant conductor at the Stratford Festival when COVID made him unemployed. “I needed to find a way to share my story when the whole world was in lockdown,” says Smith.

Cushman adds, “We had the image of an empty theatre, and that felt like a new metaphor for the show. There were all those shuttered theatres, and pianos that fell out of tune whether anyone was playing them or not.”

The first theatres they approached were those that had expressed interest in the live show — Soulpepper, the Rose Theatre in Brampton, and the Stratford Festival. From there, they radiated out to venues big and small. Every theatre they contacted was keen to get involved. “They weren’t hard conversations to have,” says Cushman.

The film was shot in 14 days over five months. It begins and ends in Smith’s apartment. In between, he tunes pianos in 12 different theatres. In some cases, there are several venues within the same theatre complex. For example, scenes were shot on the catwalk and in a dressing room at the Meridian Arts Centre, and in the lobby at both the Ed Mirvish Theatre and the Young Centre, the home of Soulpepper. They even shot outside at Harbourfront Centre’s Concert Stage.

The first theatre in the film is the smallest, Theatre Passe Muraille’s Back Space, and the film ends with the biggest venue, the Stratford Festival, or what Cushman calls “our Lear moment”. An interesting and ironic fact is, that until Lessons in Temperament became a film, the show had never been performed in a theatre.

For filming purposes, the stage show was broken down into 12 sections, and then the appropriate space was determined. The cinematic element was fleshed out with the help of accomplished director of photography, Gabriela Osio Vanden. By necessity, the show was shot out of sequence.

“It was a real joy getting to work in a whole different medium. I almost went to film school at York, so film has always been a keen interest of mine,” says Cushman.

Smith adds, “It’s not just a film of a stage show. It’s a proper film.”

In fact, Outside the March does have an archival video of the live show, but that is not what the men wanted the film to be. They made a deliberate decision to use the medium of film to broaden the experience, for example, by including closeups, or using real cinematic lighting, or making the film a collage of images.

The budget for the film was tiny, only $70,000, but the theatres themselves contributed over $100,000 in kind, including venue and crew. In some cases, this meant hiring back staff just for the shoot. “We were the first thing happening in some of those theatres in months,” says Smith.

Final Thoughts

From Cushman: “Every time we did the show, someone would open up to us about their own story, or about the necessity of destigmatizing mental health issues. This is an important show to do,”

And from Smith: “The film gave me a chance to engage with some lonely pianos. They were going out of tune and were not being played. They needed some love.”

How To See The Film

Lessons in Temperament is shown on very specific days and times. It is not a general release online screening. There are seven chances to see the film.

  • Three are in-person live screenings. The Meridian Arts Centre (Nov. 13), the Rose Theatre (Nov. 23), and Soulpepper Theatre (Nov. 27).
  • There are also four virtual screenings. Crow’s Theatre (Nov. 18), Stratford Festival (Nov. 22), Theatre Passe Muraille (Nov. 24), and Mirvish Productions (Nov. 26).

Tickets may be obtained through each theatre’s website.

100% of all box office proceeds from Lessons in Temperament go directly to mental health affiliated charities, including CAMH, Kerry’s Place, Stella’s Place, Homes First, EveryMind and True North Aid.


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Paula Citron
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