We both agree that music has to be high quality. What we do isn’t simple. Fred doesn’t write simple tunes, and the jazz arrangements I do are very sophisticated, too. Fred always says if it’s for the children, it has to be the best we can give.johnny costa, music director and pianist mister rogers’ neighborhood
music was central to Fred’s life and his television career. He worked on NBC’s music programs, played the organ, composed music, and sang as some of the puppet characters on his first children’s program, The Children’s Corner.
When he launched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, music was a natural centerpiece. Fred composed all of the melodies and lyrics for the program—over 200 songs, plus 13 half-hour-long children’s operas.
Fred also collaborated on the music for The Children’s Corner with co-host Josie Carey, whom he regarded as a brilliant lyricist. Years later, he and Carey worked together on a musical version of Josephine the Short-Necked Giraffe, a children’s opera for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood based on a story that Fred had written as a student at Rollins College.
He continued his musical collaborations into Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, working closely with jazz musician Johnny Costa, the program’s music director, as well as other visiting musicians. Costa at first was reluctant to accept the position, not wanting to play “kiddie” music, but Fred encouraged him to play arrangements as musically complex as those Costa would do for adults.
The music for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was taped live in the studio, and Costa was given free reign to improvise, often with his jazz trio—highly unusual for children’s television.
Fred was committed to exposing children to the work of exceptional artists. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist André Watts, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, violinist Itzhak Perlman, Metropolitan Opera baritone John Reardon, the rhythmic percussionists from the off-Broadway production STOMP, and many others all made visits to the Neighborhood.
Fred wanted the musical ambience of the program to do more than entertain his viewers. In Fred’s view, music was “the heartbeat of it all”; music on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood did the “serious work” of supporting children’s emotional development. Costa’s background music helped to link, seamlessly, one segment to the next—a transition one critic described as “helping children [make] interior journeys…and [come] safely back again.”
In what Fred recognized as a radical departure for television, he also encouraged silence on the program. Quiet allowed children to reflect on what they were viewing. During a program episode that included a visit with Yo-Yo Ma, Mister Rogers returned to his television house and asked his viewers, while the tape rolled uninterrupted, to take some silent time to think about the wonderful music that they had just heard.
Fred’s lyrics were a highly successful integration of his musical and empathetic talents and his deep understanding of child development. One children’s media advocate referred to Fred as “a singing psychiatrist.” Dr. Margaret McFarland recognized his remarkable ability to translate complicated psychological theory into words children could understand. Fred’s memorable songs offer life lessons and help children deal with a wide range of feelings. His songs also convey the unconditional acceptance that was at the heart of his relationship with his viewers.
It seems that music has always been at the root of who I am and what I do…. Some people might be surprised to know that first and foremost I consider myself a musician.fred rogers