The original energizing motor that makes me compose is the urge to communicate—and to communicate with as many people as possible. Because what I love about the world and life is people, I like them as much as I like music, if not more. I love people, and I have a compulsion to share with people what I feel, what I know, what I think.
– Leonard Bernstein, Conductor, New York Philharmonic
Leonard Bernstein was a talented composer, conductor, pianist, teacher, and Emmy-winning television personality. He loved to talk about music, and did so with everyone: friends, colleagues, teachers, students, and even children. Bernstein’s unique intelligence and wit afforded him a reputation as music’s most articulate spokesperson.
Variety magazine summed up his appeal by stating “The [New York] Philharmonic’s conductor has the knack of a teacher and the feel of a poet. The marvel of Bernstein is that he knows how to grab attention and carry it along, measuring just the right amount of new information to precede every climax.”10 Of all the things Bernstein accomplished, leading the Young People’s Concerts was one of his proudest legacies.
Several times a year, Carnegie Hall would fill with young children who came to learn about classical music. Bernstein would deliver a lecture-driven concert that could hold the attention of small children for an hour or more as he taught them complex music theory.
Bernstein’s explanations, analogies, and metaphors were delivered in a clear, simple, yet poetic presentation that consistently stayed at the children’s understanding level. He isolated various layers of the music, explained the theory behind it, played excerpts of it on the piano, and used various instrumentalists to play portions of it. Then, when the full piece was performed, the children had a clearer understanding of the many nuances.
Below are three excerpts from one of the most difficult musical subjects to explain, “What is Symphonic Music?” Bernstein uses items familiar to the children as metaphors:
“How does development actually work? It happens in three main stages, like a three-stage rocket going into space. The first stage is the simple birth of the idea. Like a flower growing out of a seed. You all know the seed, for example, that Beethoven planted at the beginning of his [5th] symphony dunt dunt dunt duuuunt. Out of it rises a flower that goes like this: <plays piano>”
“[Brahms] puts two to three melodies together…and takes scraps of melodies and turns things upside down like pancakes. But it’s not that it’s upside down but that it sounds amazing upside down. Will it be beautiful? That’s what makes Brahms so great. Music doesn’t just change, it changes beautifully.”
“I’m hoping you’ll hear it with new ears and hear the symphonic wonders of it, the growth of it and the miracle of life in it that runs like blood through its veins and connects every note to every other note and makes it the great piece of music that it is.”
Bernstein worked for days on his Young People’s Concert scripts and rehearsed them several times so that when he was talking it would sound as if he were just having a calm, casual conversation with the children.
Few of Bernstein’s viewers were aware of how much dogged work went into his presentations. He was so adept at displaying an easy, casual manner that his presentations appeared to be born effortlessly and spontaneously. The truth, of course, was that he worked hard on his scripts. Weeks before, and right up to the last minute, his offices, house, and dressing rooms were filled with scattered piles of paper as he and his team wrote, planned, and rehearsed.
Bernstein generated ideas on yellow legal pads and collaborated with his equally dedicated co- workers until a graceful, accessible script was formed. The team would make sure each metaphor and allegory was appropriate for the audience. Bernstein himself would walk through the script several times, marking and rehearsing as he went.
Bernstein and his team edited constantly, right up to the moment he walked on stage. After each show, they would watch the recording of what he said and evaluate it to improve it the next time. He’d identify improvements he could make so he didn’t commit the same mistakes over and over. While all good conductors review their concerts, Bernstein applied this practice to his presentations as well, so that each one got better than the last.
Conductors are trained to have a disciplined rehearsal process, so editing a script through multiple iterations wouldn’t be a foreign process for them.