Review: Lessons in Temperament (An Outside the March Film)

James Smith sitting at a piani

Lessons in Temperament has been adapted into a feature film by Writer James Smith and Director Mitchell Cushman. It started life as a play that Smith first performed as part of the 2016 Summerworks festival. Outside the March produced it in 2017.  Also in 2017 Smith was invited to present it in New York as part of Soulpepper’s New York residency.

Smith is a piano tuner as well as a performer and a playwright. Unemployed during the pandemic he decides to visit the dozen pianos he normally takes care of and “give them some love”.  Pianos go out of tune whether they’re played or not.

In the original Summerworks production we would have gone with him into someone’s living room where Smith would have tuned their piano and talked. In the film we follow him into closed, iconic Ontario theatres where Smith tunes their pianos and talks.

The house lights are down in all the theatres and only Smith is lit. The lighting is beautiful. Sometimes it looks as if the light is gently hugging Smith while he talks, keeping him safe.

I don’t know enough about the making of films to know whether Nick Blais, the Production Designer, or Gabriela Osio Vanden, the Director of Photography is responsible for intimate look of the film. Both of them I would imagine.

White is the youngest of four neurodiverse brothers. Among them they live with autism, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia.

While he’s tuning Smith explains what he’s going to do and why. As he tunes he talks about his family. Sometimes he tells little stories from his childhood but other times just talks about one of his brothers. About what he’s like, painting a picture of him with words so we can get to know him a bit.

He talks about each one in turn.  They don’t necessarily all get the same airtime.

That makes me think about unequal temperament. It’s a term I learned watching the film. It’s a piano tuning phrase. People think that pianos need to be perfectly in tune. That would be done using equal temperament which is pretty much a mathematical formula. Unequal temperament needs a tuner to make tiny adjustments so the ‘spacing’ isn’t perfect but the sound is more pleasing to the ear.

Smith’s love for his brothers is evident in everything he says but he’s never saccharine. This isn’t a sentimental piece. He talks honestly  about himself as well as about his brothers. He tells us about using music and his piano as comfort and a hiding place to shelter himself when things have been too stressful, too much to cope with.

I felt as if Smith was talking to me. His tone is quietly conversational. When he looks into the camera it felt as if he was making eye contact with me. He feels like a friend.

The pandemic has been hard on our mental health for many of us and our families. This seems like the right time to watch Lessons in Temperament. It’s beautiful to look at. It’s touching, a bit sad, hopeful, and a bit funny. I loved it and highly recommend it.


  • Lessons in Temperament is screening live and virtually from November 13 – 27, 2021
  • Tickets prices are PWYC and range from $10 to sky’s the limit
  • 100% of proceeds go to support CAMH, Kerry’s Place, Stella’s Place, Homes First, EveryMind and True North Aid

Photo of James White by Gabriela Osio Vanden