Leonard Bernstein’s Centenary: Introducing Genius into the Classroom

Leonard Bernstein: The great conductor, composer and educator would have turned 100 on August 25, 2018.

I’m always disappointed to discover that my percussion students – and that includes high school music students – have so little knowledge of music beyond pop and maybe some classic rock.

I was thinking of this on August 25, the date of what would have been Leonard Bernstein’s centenary. Worldwide celebrations of the event had begun a year earlier.

Bernstein, of course, was a towering musical figure from the 1950s until his death in 1990. Anyone of a certain age will remember him as the dazzling conductor of the New York Philharmonic (1958-69), a composer of music ranging from symphonies, chamber music and ballets to classic Broadway shows such as On the Town and the ground-breaking West Side Story.

He was a brilliant, charismatic communicator and educator. His Young People’s Concerts (this link connects to just one of many episodes available) were aired on CBS throughout the United States and syndicated in over 40 other countries; from 1958-72 he illuminated for millions what to listen for in music and what made great music great.

The world has been commemorating Leonard Bernstein’s centenary for months in the form of lectures, exhibitions, the publication of new biographies and reissue of old ones, reissues of his recorded legacy, and orchestral and chamber ensemble performances of his compositions.

Why then, when I ask senior high school percussion students if they’ve ever heard of Bernstein, do they draw a blank? They don’t have a clue as to who Bernstein was. They are totally unfamiliar with his music – and that includes the brilliant tunes from West Side Story. (The subject usually comes up if they have to play an arrangement of West Side Story in their band class.) Digging a little deeper, I usually discover that they don’t hear a great variety of music – meaning classical or jazz – at home.

We live in an age when high school students only hear a narrow range of pop music broadcast over their chosen radio station. Other than that, they listen solely to music programed on their phone or that they seek out on YouTube. The one opportunity they may have to hear great classical music and jazz, and to discover the important figures associated with those musical genres, is in the junior high and high school band class. That makes it incumbent upon high school and private music teachers to introduce them to the great music and musicians that they are otherwise unlikely to hear, or whose stories they are unlikely to become familiar with, whether it’s Charlie Parker, Beethoven . . . or Leonard Bernstein.

Bernstein’s centenary provided a wonderful opportunity to introduce students to great music, all on YouTube, from the concert hall to Broadway. There are Young People’s Concerts, orchestral performances and even rehearsals (including one with a youth orchestra in which Bernstein tries, in vain, to get a specific sound from the triangle players). And it could all be tied in with the story of a musical genius whose talent, boundless energy and enormous charisma dazzled the world.

But it’s never too late to inspire students by playing great musical works or introducing them to musical genius. If our mission is to broaden their musical horizons, there are ample opportunities, any day of the school the year, to do so.

For further information about Leonard Bernstein’s centenary, look here: https://leonardbernstein.com/at100

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