He was told hundreds of times that no one would ever be able to sing augmented fourths; the C to F-sharp was absolutely impossible and his musical, West Side Story would be an utter failure. The critics said no one wants to see two dead people laying onstage at the end of Act 1, what kind of musical comedy is that? However, for Leonard Bernstein, failure or defeat was never an option. Born with an insatiable desire to learn, Bernstein made opportunity open its door for him, no matter what he had to do.
(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)
At the young and impressionable age of ten was when Bernstein was first exposed to the wonder of music. He was given an old upright piano by his aunt Clara in 1928.
“I still remember, [the piano] had a mandolin pedal: the middle pedal turned the instrument into a kind of wrinkly sounding mandolin. And I just put my hands on the keyboard and I was hooked…for life,” says Bernstein. This meeting of fingers across the black and white ivory keys began a life-long love affair between Bernstein and music. “You know what it’s like to fall in love: You touch someone and that’s it. From that day to this, that’s what my life’s been about,” says Bernstein.
Hungry to learn everything he could about music, specifically the piano, Bernstein began to teach himself. With no formal training, Berstein developed his own system of harmony but soon became frustrated with his lack of knowledge and asked his father to find a teacher for him. This took some convincing, as his father was convinced there was no money in being a musician. “Neither my father [who was in the beauty supply business] nor I really knew that there was a real ‘world of music,’” says Bernstein. “My father [would] complain: ‘A klezmer you want to be?’ To him, a Klezmer [an interant musician in Eastern Europe who played at weddings and bar mitzvahs] was little more than a beggar,” says Bernstein. But despite these feelings, Berstein’s father allowed him to take his very first piano lessons from Miss Freida Karp for one dollar a lesson. Berstein absolutely adored her and he began to excel in his musical abilities, but soon began to outgrow her. Miss Karp told Bernstein’s father that he needed to attend the New England Conservatory of music; she couldn’t keep up with his Chopin ballades. His father agreed and Bernstein began to take lessons at the Conservatory by a Miss Susan Williams, who charged three dollars a lesson. Bernstein’s father was outraged and only agreed to pay a third of the cost, telling Bernstein he had to find other ways of coming up with the necessary additional funds. However, determined as ever to continue developing his musical interests, Bernstein joined a small jazz group and performed at weddings and bar mitzvahs. “I’d come home at night with bleeding fingers and two bucks, maybe, which went towards my piano lessons,” says Bernstein. The work was hard but he knew it was worth it. Unfortunately, after a bit of time passed, Bernstein realized his new teacher Miss Williams was not going to work out. “she had some kind of system, based on never showing your knuckles – can you imagine playing a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody like that?” he says. So he moved on to a third teacher, who charged six dollars an hour. So what did Bernstein do? “I had to play more jazz,” he says. “I also started to give piano lessons to the neighborhood kids.” Bernstein found teaching piano lessons to be incredibly rewarding. “Teaching is probably the noblest…most unselfish… most honorable profession in the world,” he says. As he watched children learn, he began to develop his own philosophies about the human mind and how things are learned. “Though I can’t prove it, deep in my heart I know that every person is born with the love of learning. Without exception,” Bernstein says. Giving examples of how an infant studies its toes and fingers and a child’s discovery of its voice, Bernstein speaks with excitement about this, as he is no exception in the love of learning. “I’ve suggested that there must be proto-syllables existing at the beginnings of all languages- like ma (or some variant of it), which is almost every tongue, means “mother,” says Bernstein. Continuing on, Bernstein gives multiple examples of maternal speech in other languages including mater, madre, mutter, mat and mama. These are ideas and contemplations that Bernstein carries with him throughout his life and often references.
Bernstein did not only teach and play in jazz bands. This is not what made him so famous today. His earth-shatteringly successful musical West Side Story drastically changed the path of musical theatre. However, it was not an overnight success. This was yet another time in his life when he was forced to persevere through discouragement. “Everybody told us [Bernstein and his lyricist Steven Sondheim] that the show was an impossible project,” Bernstein says. He recalls playing four-hand parts on the piano with Sondheim to try to convey the complicated musical ideas and forms that were in the West Side Story score. Many people told Bernstein that the music was impossible to sing and that the score was too “rangy” for pop music. However, Bernstein continued to push the idea and eventually convinced Columbia Records to record the score. What a good decision this was for the record company, as the record sales ended up saving the company financially.
“I am a fanatic music lover,” says Bernstein. “I can’t liveo n day without hearing music, playing it, studying it or thinking about it.” It was this obsession, this passion, this hunger for the thing he loved so very much that kept him going in life. The determination to succeed and to learn no matter what obstacles he encountered is what made Leonard Bernstein an undeniably famous musician.