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From the Archives: Leonard Bernstein: Artist as Educator

Posted September 27, 2022


By Eric Booth
(as printed in the Fall-Winter 2014-2015 issue of Prelude, Fugue & Riffs)

“Teaching is probably the noblest profession in the world—the most unselfish, difficult, and honorable profession. But, it is also the most unappreciated, underrated, underpaid and underpraised profession in the world.” Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein presents a Young People’s Concert with the New York Philharmonic. Courtesy of the New York Philharmonic Archives.

Leonard Bernstein was the most powerful envoy from the high arts in my lifetime, and arguably in the 20th century. His education legacy embodied a new role for the artist-as-educator, transformed a generation’s view of the arts — and went further, presaging answers to the pressing challenges in the arts and in education that we face today.

When the Young People’s Concerts first came on television, it was the only show my contentious siblings and I could agree on watching, and my dad would call us to watch together to make sure we weren’t late. My life in the arts began, ironically, in front of the TV, intensely drawn by this handsome guy who made music fun and interesting, who involved the audience in actively experimenting with him, who moved the program along fast and surprisingly, and who led me to experience the beauty and horripilating (the perfect word — meaning having your hair stand on end) excitement of classical music, of art. If this was education — NOT that stuff I experienced in school! — I wanted more of it. If this was what the arts were — I wanted a lifetime of it. And that is what I got.

And not just me. The 53 televised Young People’s Concerts over 14 years drew forth an entire generation into the active discovery of the pleasures, purposes, mysteries, passions and sheer joy of classical music. Bernstein was as innate an educator as he was a composer and conductor. He intuitively knew that people learn through pleasure; that experience opens the door to curiosity; that musical playfulness prompts serious learning; and that questions and questioning are more consequential than answers.

Above all, he lived the truth of great education, which is, as I put it to aspiring teaching artists: 80% of what you teach is who you are. Students and audiences drink in, and learn from, your embodied definition of art in the way you speak, the images you use, in your body language, the way you listen, the questions you ask.

The educational law of 80% made Bernstein indelible, inescapable, and transformative as a teacher, by being exactly who he was — the most radiantly curious, playfully exploratory, brilliantly investigative master learner of the century. Oh, he had his 20% of rigorous learning in place — he was a lifelong student of music, as well as Shakespeare, biology, comparative religion, astrophysics, pop music, Russian literature, politics and history, and on and on — and he relished diving deep into a new area like linguistics when he challenged himself to deliver the Norton Lectures at Harvard and forge the linguistics-musical connection that makes my head explode with delight. He was more than an intuitively gifted teacher; he was a diligent craftsman.

But Bernstein’s power was his authentic enthusiasm for learning and sharing his learning — enthusiasm, which etymologically means “filled with God.” Bernstein was filled with the god of teaching and learning, and this 80% changed lives wherever he went. Here is an etymology that reveals a core truth about Bernstein’s education legacy. The word: connoisseur. A classic word of artistic elitism. The word that makes most Americans withdraw from the arts, exactly the opposite of the way LB could draw them in as an ambassador. A close etymological analysis shows that a connoisseur is not one who knows, but rather, one who is adept at coming to know. A connoisseur is a master learner. That is Bernstein’s legacy in a nutshell. He embodied a new kind of connoisseurship, one that had unprecedented impact on his century, and one that provides practical and powerful solutions for this struggling new century in which his legacy abides and continues to nourish.

Eric Booth is called “the father of the teaching artist profession,” and he credits LB with being the most important teaching artist in history. A former Broadway actor and author of seven books, a longtime faculty member at Juilliard and Lincoln Center Education, he is a consultant with major orchestras and conservatories, and delivers keynote speeches around the world.

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