Essential Bernstein

Best of Bernstein: 10 Quotes for Inspiring and Motivating Musicians and Artists (and Every One Who Dares to Hope and Dream)

Need a little inspiration? Look no further: Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), the great American-born and -trained conductor and composer, educator and humanitarian, spoke volumes in words and deeds: from understanding loss and disappointment to persisting amid frustration and fame and devoting concerts to causes.

Here are ten of our favorite quotes from Bernstein to inspire and motivate musicians, artists, and all of us — any one humble enough to know that even the greatest of creators and educators knows what it is like to fail — face trials, remember one’s purpose — and, ultimately, dare to hope, dream, and succeed.

10. Discovering music’s power

Photo: Leonard Bernstein playing piano. Copyright: Ruth Orkin Photo Archive, courtesy of Mary Engel. All rights reserved. | Graphic: WGBH's
Photo: Leonard Bernstein playing piano. Copyright: Ruth Orkin Photo Archive, courtesy of Mary Engel. All rights reserved. | Graphic: WGBH’s

July 11, 1937

The Sunday morning [July 11, 1937] when I heard on the radio that George Gershwin had died, I was absolutely devastated. I tried to get out of playing [at summer camp, where I was swimming and music counselor].

I came into the dining room where all the parents were sitting, flattering and chattering, and instead of playing “Tea for Two” … I held up my hand, or played a chord, or something to get them quiet. Then I announced that Gershwin had died, that he had been an idol of mine, and that I was going to play his second Prelude as a memorial.

They all put down their silverware and listened as I played this very slow, very sad music. As the last notes wafted away, I rose from the piano and left the hall in silence.

That was the first inkling I ever had of the power of music, of its possibilities for control. It was a great turning point for me.

Perhaps the most theatrical thing in the world is a roomful of hushed people, and the more people there are who are silent, the more dramatic it is.

(Source: 1976. Chicago Tribune, Thomas Willis | Graphic:

9. Questioning your purpose

March 22, 1938

The whole of art shows up at a time like this, and the whole futility of spending your life in it. I take it seriously – seriously enough to want to be with it constantly till the day I die. But why?

With millions of people going mad – madder every day because of a most mad man strutting across borders – with every element that we thought had refined human living and made what we called civilisation being actively forgotten, […] what chance is there?

Art is more than ever now proved entertainment – people, we thought, were ready, after 2,000 years of refining Christianity […]. And so we were willing to spend our lives creating that entertainment. Aaron, it’s not feasible; it’s a damned dirty disappointment.

(Source: 1938. Bernstein letter to Aaron Copland, March 22, written while studying at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts)

8. Learning from difficulty


As you may have already discovered by reading the New York Times, I did not win the contest…

These are certainly times of trial for me; but I know that if I can come through this period of adjustment and difficulty, all will be well, and I will be better for it.

(Source: 1942. Bernstein letter to Olga Koussevitzky. Photo: Library of Congress Music Division | Graphic:

7. Laughing cleanses, laughing restores

June 10, 1953

I sometimes think the Man’s capacity for laughter is nobler than his divine gift of suffering. Laughing cleanses a man: it restores his sanity, and balances his sense of values.

Now in a time of caution and fear, in an atmosphere turgid with non-direction and non-expressivity, let us laugh and let laugh, lighten the air we breath, and feel clean.

(Source: 2nd Annual Festival of the Creative Arts Program Book, Brandeis University, June 10, 1953)

6. Blossoming means change

January 21, 1959

Development is really the main thing in life, just as it is in music; because development means change, growing, blossoming out; and these things are life itself.

(Young People’s Concerts, “What is Classical Music?“, January 21, 1959)

5. Understanding panic

September 4, 1966

“I am having my usual pre-season panic, feeling unprepared both in scores and in sleep; but I suppose this is the normal annual condition.”

(Source: Letter to Helen Coates, written in Fairfield, Connecticut, September 4, 1966)

4. Accepting criticism like praise, growing up

February 19, 1967

I’m enough of a child and have enough of an ego to be incapable of resisting what people say about me. And good criticism upsets me only when I’m being praised for the wrong reasons.

(Source: “Leonard Bernstein Talks About the Critics” by John Gruen, New York, World Tribune Magazine, February 19, 1967)

Summer 1967

“The painful process of growing up is simply the constant ever-widening realization that you are not the center. It’s painful.”

(Source: Interview with John Gruen, Ansedonia, Italy, The Private World of John Gruen, 1967)

3. Remember what you love?

August 30, 1968

“[Playing the piano] is still my first love. When I sit at the piano I feel back in the womb.”

(Source: “The Symphonic Form is Dead,” Time Magazine, August 30, 1968)

2. Persisting in hope

July 7, 1970

It’s the artists of the world, the feelers and thinkers, who will ultimately save us; who can articulate, educate, defy, insist, sing, and shout the big dreams. …

(Source: “The Principle of Hope,” Berkshire Music Center [Tanglewood] Welcome Address, 1970)

1. Daring to dream

July 7, 1970

In the same speech, Bernstein called on artists — and any one who “has the gift of dreams at night” — to “dream” life: welcome imaginative thinking and nurture “not idle dreams, but truths — all those abiding truth-formations and constellations that nourish us.”

Every artist copes with reality by means of fantasy. Fantasy, better known as imagination, is his greatest treasure, his basic equipment for life. And since his work is his life, his fantasy is constantly in play. He dreams life. …

When I speak of his fantasy, I am not suggesting a constant state of abstraction, but rather the continuous imaginative powers that inform his creative acts as well as his reactions to the world around him. And out of that creativity and those imaginative reactions come not idle dreams, but truths — all those abiding truth-formations and constellations that nourish us…

The gift of imagination is by no means an exclusive property of the artist; it is a gift we all share; to some degree or other all of us, all of you, are endowed with the powers of fantasy…

The dullest of dullards among us has the gift of dreams at night — visions and yearnings and hopes. Everyone can also think; it is the quality of thought that makes the difference — not just the quality of logical thinking, but of imaginative thinking.

(Source: “The Principle of Hope,” Berkshire Music Center [Tanglewood] Welcome Address, 1970)

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