Comedian, actor and Berkeley-local Andy Samberg was the latest guest on “Reading Is Instrumental,” the virtual musical storytime series created by the Berkeley Public Library Foundation and the Berkeley Symphony. In each episode, which airs live every Friday morning on Facebook, a Bay Area celebrity reads from a children’s book, the event set to live music played by a member of the Berkeley Symphony.
Samberg’s 11-minute episode Oct. 9 was accompanied by violinist Matthew Szemela. In addition to providing a score for the reading, Szemela also opened and closed the episode. He welcomed the audience and introduced himself, sharing that he first began playing the violin when he was 3 ½ years old. He was inspired by a group of violinists he saw on television, and ever since he began taking lessons, he hasn’t stopped playing.
“Now, I love playing all sorts of different types of music — classical, jazz, rock, hip-hop — but one of my favorite things to do is make up music right on the spot,” Szemela said. Instead of following a prepared piece, he explained, he would improvise his music during Samberg’s live reading. “Improvisation is like using your imagination to make up music right in the moment.”
After Szemela’s introduction, the words “Reading Is Instrumental” popped on screen in blocky yellow letters and Samberg finally appeared. Samberg introduced himself to viewers and shared his appreciation for the Berkeley Public Library.
“I went to Berkeley Public Library all the time, so this is very special for me, to be able to share a book with everyone who might be going to the Berkeley Public Library now,” Samberg said. “And everytime I come home, I like to go there still, even as a grown-up.”
By this time, a little more than 100 viewers had joined the livestream — many of whom, according to the comments, were Samberg’s fans from Brazil, London and the Bay Area. Samberg began to read the book “Little Fox and the Wild Imagination,” written by Jorma Taccone and illustrated by Dan Santat. Taccone, also from Berkeley, is Samberg’s childhood friend and one-third of their comedy group The Lonely Island.
The book follows Papa Fox picking up Little Fox from school, and the two use their imaginations to transform the rest of their day into an adventure. From imitating race cars speeding to dinosaurs roaring to rockets taking off, Samberg made several sound effects to help bring the story to life. As he read on, he began to develop distinct voices for each character, occasionally chuckling or commenting on the story.
Szemela’s lively music gave the reading even more personality, his violin’s notes frequently echoing the pitch of Samberg’s voice. Rather than playing a continuous piece, Szemela sharply plucked at strings following dialogue or played brief runs during plot narration.
“And that’s the end!” Samberg said several minutes later, closing the book. “That’s a fun book, all about imagination and having fun with your parents and parents having fun with their kiddos.”
This fun evidently translated to families at home: In the comment thread, people expressed their gratitude for Samberg’s entertaining reading and Szemela’s spirited musical improvisation. One viewer wrote “Wonderful. Love the collaboration,” while another said “Thank you for this. Thumbs up from the 4 ½ year old.”
Samberg thanked viewers for tuning in, encouraging families to read at home like he does with his daughter. He prompted local viewers to take advantage of the Berkeley Public Library’s curbside pickup services, and he signed off with a reminder to stay safe, support the library and keep reading. The video then transitioned to Szemela, who made closing remarks and played a final improvisation for the rolling credits.
Even though many libraries are closed to the public right now, the charming collaboration between the Berkeley Public Library and the Berkeley Symphony proves that there are still fun, entertaining ways to engage young readers.