nonfiction nuggets…a musical genius teaches music appreciation

Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, by Leonard Bernstein, edited by Jack Gottlieb 


…there’s no limit to the different kinds of feelings music can make you have.  Some of those feelings are so special they can’t even be described in words.  Sometimes we can name the things we feel, like joy or sadness or love or hate or peacefulness.  But there are other feelings so deep and special that we have no words for them, and that’s where music is especially marvelous.  It names the feelings for us, only in notes instead of words. 


This is Leonard Bernstein, and it is part of his answer to the question, “What does music mean?”  Bernstein tackled this question in one of his beloved Young People’s Concerts given in New York City primarily during the 1960s.  These concerts, featuring the New York Philharmonic, brought Bernstein’s incredible flair for teaching and deep love and understanding of music, together in a series of televised programs which captivated the nation.  Many young people’s concerts have been inspired by him, but none, I think, obscure the pure genius of his productions. 

This book provides Bernstein’s script for fifteen of the concerts, along with some very nice black ink illustrations –in keeping with the black-and-white era broadcasts.  Because the musical selections on the programs were played by an orchestra, Bernstein substituted other short musical examples in this text, written out for the piano.  Here you can find out what Bernstein taught about American music, Impressionism, and humor.  You can read his lucid explanations of sonata form, intervals in music, melody, and concertos.  You can meet Sibelius and Berlioz.

Bernstein’s text flows very conversationally, as he builds up our understanding one analogy, one musical example, one clarifying remark upon another. My 2005 edition also includes a listing of all the concerts and the excerpts played in them, as well as a biography of Bernstein. 

If you are seeking to impart music appreciation to kids, you will be helped and inspired by this book.  Read it for yourself, share nuggets of it with your children, play some of his examples on CD, give them some paints and paper to illustrate what they’re hearing…magic!  

The original broadcasts — 53 of them — are available on DVD now.  My guess is that for many kids today, the black-and-white picture, the dated narrator’s voice, which brought back memories  of the Mr. Science films we watched in grade school!,  an audience made up of little boys in suits and girls in prim dresses and hairbands…may prove challenging hurdles.  If you help them past that, however, Bernstein’s lovely giftedness as a teacher is as mesmerizing as ever.  

You can hear the first 10 minutes of the “Folk Music in the Concert Hall” program through this link.  Give it a listen all the way through to see how, like the Pied Piper, Bernstein draws us into his world of music.