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Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas wants to give people "courage" to color "outside the lines"

One of today's most prolific and respected conductors, Michael Tilson Thomas, was celebrated at the 42nd annual Kennedy Center Honors, which airs Sunday on CBS. The music director of the San Francisco Symphony, who learned from and worked with legends, Tilson Thomas told CBS News correspondent Jan Crawford that now it's his responsibility to take the voices of musical giants of the past and amplify them in the present and future.

"You can understand the language of classical music … if you do it early in your life, it's wonderful and easy and enriching forever," Tilson Thomas said.

That enrichment did begin early for the man known as MTT.

"My first memories of playing the piano were, of course, playing like this," he said, putting his hands above his head. "You know, kind of looking up at the keyboard. I was somewhere down on the floor standing up.

"My parents told me I couldn't walk by the piano without playing something on it," he added.

His father, he says, was his greatest teacher. "My father didn't read music, but he was a tremendous instinct for music. He improvised on the piano for many hours a day," Tilson Thomas said.

Tilson Thomas' big break came at age 24 when he took over for a sick Boston Symphony conductor mid-concert. Critics predicted he'd be the next Leonard Bernstein, who was a mentor and friend. 

He's conducted orchestras all over the world. For the last 25 years, he's been the music director of the San Francisco Symphony, a role he's stepping down from after this season.

But Tilson Thomas is also a maverick. He's a huge fan of the godfather of soul, James Brown, and a collaborator with metal band Metallica.

"There were people inside of classical music who chastise me and say, 'Why are you going off to be on the road with James Brown when you could be practicing and learning another symphony?'"

"Isn't that what visionaries do, though?" Crawford asked. "You're coloring out of the box."

"Definitely coloring outside the lines is one of my missions in life, and to give people the courage to do that. To do that gracefully is something I say to young musicians I work with all the time. They'll ask me, 'Well, how much can I actually do here?' And I'll say, 'Enough to be effective without becoming annoying,'" he said.

He imparts that advice to the fellows at the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, the teaching symphony he co-founded in 1988 for gifted musicians. One of his missions, he says, is to connect the past to the present to help create a more hopeful future.

"I used to walk in the beach with my dad when I was a kid. And he'd say, 'Well, you know, every artist … wants to leave footprints in the sands of time, but take a look behind us.' And we'd looked back, and our footprints were there for a couple of feet … and then beyond that, the ocean had already effectively wiped them away," Tilson Thomas recalled. "He said, 'That's exactly the way life is. But there are ideas … which do go forward. … It's something that happened in a million little anonymous moments between people, when they cared enough about their art … to pass it on.' And that's what I still believe."

Tilson Thomas said he doesn't really think about his past accomplishments, and even as he's about to turn 75, he keeps focused on the present and the future.

The 42nd annual Kennedy Center Honors ceremony airs on CBS on Sunday, Dec. 15 at 8 p.m. ET. A special CBSN pre-show with reports from the red carpet and interviews with this years honorees starts at 7 p.m. on or the CBS News app.

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