Passing the baton

Leonard Bernstein with his son in an undated photo. Photo courtesy of Alexander Bernstein
Leonard Bernstein’s son Alexander continues the celebrated conductor’s legacy of arts education


Long before you could instantly summon musical programs for kids on YouTube and Netflix, before Barney & Friends and Baby Einstein hit DVD, there were Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts.

Starting in 1962, young fans tuned their RCA Victors and console televisions into Bernstein’s hybrid concert/music lessons, broadcast by CBS straight from Lincoln Center to living rooms throughout the U.S. and in 40 countries around the world. That Bernstein, the legendary composer and conductor, brought magnetism and charm to the small screen is unsurprising. What is less obvious is that Bernstein, the gifted lecturer and teacher infected with an insatiable curiosity, set a new precedent in his Young People’s Concerts, not only for music education but also for education through music and the arts.

“He was a born teacher. I think he was teaching and learning in whatever he was doing — composing, conducting, sitting at the table for dinner,” says Alexander Bernstein of his father. “He’d start out talking about the French language, for instance, and end up talking about the Battle of Waterloo.”

The younger Bernstein also heard the call to teach, and continues his father’s legacy through Artful Learning, a nonprofit that works to deepen academic learning through the arts. Alexander will share his personal remembrances of his father and be honored for his stewardship by the Bloomingdale School of Music at their “Notes from 108th Street” scholarship benefit on April 19th. The event will recognize the elder Bernstein’s centennial, and include performances of four of his “Anniversaries for Piano” compositions, musical postcards for mentors and family members Aaron Copland, Helen Coates, Stephen Sondheim and Felicia Montealegre, Bernstein’s wife.

“Toward the end of [my father’s] life, he started thinking more broadly about all the arts, and the artistic process as being absolutely connected with all learning. He saw teaching and learning as a creative act, and was looking for ways to make that happen in a classroom community,” explains Bernstein.

Artful Learning is the result of this inquiry, and best summed up by an oft-quoted line from the famed composer: “The best way to know a thing is in the context of another discipline.” Though founded by Leonard Bernstein, it is Alexander who ushered the nonprofit into this century. He has worked to refine and advance a learning model based on the belief that teaching is not “just dumping information into somebody else’s brain,” but instilling a far-reaching sense of curiosity unbound by subject matter.

“Classroom teachers, not specialists in art, music or theater, teachers really get excited about how the material connected with subject matter, and it grew from there,” explains Bernstein.

Using music, theater and visual art to bridge concepts in different disciplines, the model helps boost achievement, engagement and collaboration in classrooms nationwide.

For Alexander, who has a background in theater and drama education, teaching was an essential part of his relationship with his father.

“It was a great way to collaborate with him. I’m not a musician, and I always felt kind of left out of that part of his life. Working in education was a wonderful way to connect with him,” he says.

It is also through education that Alexander manifests what he considers his father’s greatest gift to him: a sense of social justice and a respect for all people.

He recalls how his father would have long evenings with foreign heads of state — the composer was particularly fond of Bruno Kreisky, a former foreign minister and chancellor of Austria, and former mayor of Jerusalem Theodor (Teddy) Kollek — to try and “figure out ways to make things work.” Bernstein notes that sometimes, his father’s openness was to his detriment, and his heal-the-world approach called naive.

Yet Alexander’s honor by Bloomingdale, with its long history of providing access to music education and performance for young people of all backgrounds (the founder, David Greer, began by offering Saturday morning classes for as little as 50 cents in 1964) is proof that the arts, by being a vehicle for education, are also agents of change.

Says Bernstein, “What Artful Learning does is kind of a political act, when you think of it, when you have a student body that is going to be creative thinkers, life-long learners, curious open to debate, open to different ways of thinking, different cultural understandings. You know, that’s kind of scary prospect for some people.”