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Screenshot of Music Reference Specialist Heather Darnell talking to Jordan Rudess on a Zoom call.
Music Reference Specialist Heather Darnell interviews Jordan Rudess on a Zoom call.

Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess on His Letter to Bernstein

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The following is a guest post from Music Reference Specialist Heather Darnell.

Handwritten letter from eight year-old Jordan Rudess to Leonard Bernstein.
Jordan Rudess. Letter to Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein Collection, Library of Congress Music Division.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post on hate mail to famous musicians. One letter, found in our Leonard Bernstein Collection by researcher Lilian Holland, really stood out:

Aug 1965

Dear Mr. Bernstein,

How long do you practice? Can I have your picture? I am 8 years old. I think I play better than you. Do you want any advice?


After a few commenters expressed interest in the author’s identity, I did a bit of research. It turned out to be a young Jordan Rudess–legendary keyboardist best known for his work with Dream Theater and Liquid Tension Experiment!

Rudess was kind enough to have a conversation with me about his letter, career, and connection with Bernstein. Here are a few highlights [edited for brevity]:

On seeing the letter for the first time in 57 years…

Well its really amazing that you guys dug that up. Totally mind blowing! You know, my family was like, “Oh my god, that’s amazing!” …I’m amazed my mother let that out the door. Maybe she thought it was really cute.

Did Bernstein ever write back?

I don’t think so, no…He was probably like, “This kid thinks he plays better than me! I’m not writing him back—no way!”

*According to our archival records, Bernstein did send a picture in return!

On Rudess’ first connection with Bernstein…

My mother didn’t really expect to have music in her family. So when I came around and started playing the piano, she was really, really happy, and she would tell stories about sitting on the steps outside the concert hall to listen to Leonard Bernstein playing piano or conducting an orchestra. And she really enjoyed it and shared that with me. Leonard Bernstein was definitely on my mind because of that.

 On who is the better pianist…

*Laughing* I don’t think at 8-years-old I was playing better than him. He was a pretty damn good pianist. Really so talented. The thing that is so fun about the letter being to Leonard Bernstein is that, like him, I have also crossed boundaries in my career. I started out as a classical musician, went to Juilliard at 9, then left when I was 19 and decided to do other things. I got into rock and progressive rock and eventually metal and lot of different stuff. And Leonard Bernstein of course was the king of crossing boundaries and working within whatever genre.

 What he would write to Bernstein today…

Ah well, I would just say thanks for all the amazing inspiration because the reality is, you know, his musical path is something I can relate to. He was one of the kings of being able to be a great classical musician and write music that had all different kinds of genres mixed in, and that’s totally what I’m interested in. And I really, like, want to become him in that way! So I would just have to say, “Thank you for this incredible inspiration and for allowing the world to see what’s possible as a musician.”

A great thank you to Jordan Rudess for being such a good sport and honoring the Library of Congress Music Division with an interview!

Comments (17)

  1. In other words, he’s still cocky as hell.

  2. This is amazing! Now I’m an even bigger DT fan!

  3. Thanks for sharing this story of musical journeys and a precocious (and confident!) child!

  4. I don’t think he is cocky in his responses whatsoever, Andrew. For the amazing things that this man has accomplished, he is remarkably humble in his responses. He is speaking the truth without bragging about his incredible accomplishments. After all, Jordan rudess is named the best keyboardist IN THE WORLD.

  5. That was so amazing. Great job, Heather. Your blog has brought smiles to so many, especially the Bernstein and Rudess families and fans.

  6. What an incredible story! I love reading about what inspires and influences young musicians.

    Jordan is not cocky at all. I’ve met him a couple of times. He and his wife manage the merch table at all of his solo shows. He hangs out with his fans and engages in real down-to-earth conversation with them, not just at his shows but in every interaction he has with fans.

    He is the most approachable famous musician I have ever met.

  7. It’s so amazing that his letter was preserved and he finally got to see it again after all these years! Jordan is awesome and so talented crossing boundaries like Bernstein. Such a fun interview!!

  8. If someone deserves to be cocky after a huge career, then it is certainly Jordan Rudess.
    I had the luck to see him live in Glasgow before joining DT where he played just with a drummer (opening for DT) and you really thought that a whole band was playing.
    Find out about Rudess before posting stupid accusations my friend

  9. Jordan is a dear brother from another mother to me – we worked together for some years at Korg and did a tour in Japan showing the Wavestation in concerts in Tokyo and Kobe. I used to sit next to him on airplanes while he practiced scales at 190BPM on a portable weighted action he used to bring EVERYWHERE. He is where he is because he’s worked non-stop at a level that would make heads spin to get where he is.

  10. Just a small correction: Juilliard, not Julliard.

    • Thanks for catching the typo – easy fix!

  11. About 1970, my 3yr.old son, and I, watched Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. One Sunday, Alex ran back to his room, and came back with a stick from his “Tinker Toy” set, and started conducting! We were a musical family. I learned piano, from an aunt, on a Steinway Studio Grand. My husband played violin in two community orchestras(he had played in an early young people’s orchestra led by the first conductor of the Atlanta Symphony). Alex later took lessons from the violin instructor at Emory University(a good friend of my husband).

  12. you spelt juilliard wrongish

  13. I would love to know what Jordan Rudess’ practice habits were when he was 8 years old. (And now!) Looking forward to more blogs like this, thanks!

  14. Did the interviewer follow up to ask the interviewee about the photo Lenny sent him? I am gobsmacked that (1) it wasn’t mentioned by the interviewee and (2) by the thought the interviewee received it and attached so little importance to Lenny’s generosity of spirit. Where I come from, this is called hubris.

  15. Was his real name ‘Rudes’, later changed to ‘Rudess’?

    • Good question! This point didn’t come up in the interview, but he did release his 1988 album Arrival under the spelling Jordan Rudes.

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