A tribute to Leonard Bernstein from his son
By Alexander Bernstein
It seems impossible that twenty years have passed since my father (Leonard Bernstein) died. Or perhaps, I should write, I haven’t seen my father for twenty years! Sometimes I feel as though he is on tour again and will be back at any time now…
My father traveled a great deal. When he was home, though, he was really home. As a composer, he didn’t have an office to go to like the other dads. He would stay up very late working and then wake up very late. He would always be there when we came home from school, ready to play (or at least not minding if we played quietly in his studio while he worked). In the summertime we had him all day long for swimming, tennis, sailing, or just eating six ears of corn apiece. Sometimes he would play something for us as soon as he finished writing it and would ask our opinions. Undoubtedly, it was always “terrific” because he had such faith in his work and played with such joy and energy.
When he was conducting (which was most of the time), he would be home studying the scores or out at rehearsals. Occasionally he would take us kids along to the rehearsals. We would spend all day at the making of his televised “Young People’s Concerts,” running around Carnegie Hall or the Philharmonic Hall (now Avery Fisher Hall) as if we owned the place. It was sort of like “Eloise at the Plaza.”
Evenings were often festive times with relatives and friends from the New York arts world. I remember much laughter, noise and
Once in a while we got to travel with our father, and it was such a treat! Everything was first class with lots of attention. We would see all the sights, meet all the mucky-mucks, and stay up late ordering room service. Heaven.
We learned the music as we sat (and ran around) during rehearsals. We never really knew that we were getting an education in “Classical” music, but my father was a great teacher. Whether it be music, poetry, philosophy, or politics, my father’s greatest passion was to share and to communicate. My sister has said that his real ambition was to connect, in one way or another, with every person on the planet. For having lived only 72 years, he didn’t do a bad job of it. My father loved people and made love with multitudes. He never stopped learning. His appetite for knowledge and life was insatiable. Not only did he read constantly, but he would stay up all night with a group of students talking about music, love, and religion. He would drink them under the table and still be ready to rehearse at 10 a.m.
I was a very bad music student. I rarely practiced piano and dreaded my lessons (given by a series of game, but ultimately frustrated teachers). I did listen to the music. I listened to my father talk about art, humanity, social justice and education. Eventually, not long before his death, I was a teacher with a Master’s Degree. My father was increasingly interested in education. We talked a lot about what exactly it was that made an engaged, life-long learner. The more and more we talked, it became clear that art and its processes could be the great connectors between disciplines. Learning itself is a creative act. Only by truly making knowledge one’s own can one deeply understand it and connect it with other knowledge.
After his death, our family started The Leonard Bernstein Center for Learning. We developed The Artful Learning Model (tm), now being implemented in schools all over the country . Teachers and students come to see themselves as creators as well as scholars. Not at all to diminish his composing and conducting, but it is Leonard Bernstein’s legacy as an educator that I hope will have the most impact.
I guess he’s staying on tour after all – he is still communicating!
FILE PHOTO (SONY)