A Trio Con Brio

In the beginning, there was a used mimeograph machine, some space at the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and three energetic and determined women: Ruth Cogen, Diana Engel and Jackie Marlin.

This beginning, like other acts of creation, began with an idea and a bit of chutzpah. Coming from New York, where music schools abound, Ruth and Diana wanted to fill a void they saw in Washington: the absence of a first class music school. Jackie remembers getting Ruth’s telephone call one day asking what she thought about the idea of creating and naming the School after their late friend, Selma M. Levine. “Terrific idea,” said Jackie. “Well, if you think it’s such a terrific idea,” said Ruth, “Why don’t you help us?”

To Levine’s good fortune, Jackie accepted, and in April 1976 the three friends picked up the tempo. Ruth and Diana drew up budgets, and time after time came up with a shortfall. Getting hold of Selma’s address book, the three called Selma’s friends to ask for start-up money, with the aim of opening the School’s doors that September. They charmingly “twisted the arms” of friends to sign up their kids for music lessons. They convinced top musicians and teachers, many from the National Symphony Orchestra and area universities, to commit to the School. Barely five months later, having assembled a distinguished Advisory Board and faculty, and armed with just over $4,000 in donations to carry them through the fall, the trio was ready. Well, almost. With the School set to open on a Tuesday, the three founders gathered the night before and suddenly thought: who was going to open the doors and let people in?

When Jackie and Diana did open the doors of Levine the following afternoon as Levine’s first (unpaid) Co-Directors, it might have seemed a modest enterprise. The school started out with just 20 students, half of whom came along with Levine’s first faculty hire, Sheila Johnson. As the number of students quickly increased, the students and teachers used every nook and cranny at the church: the outer room of the ladies’ lounge, the nursery, and even the baptismal font, where lessons were occasionally held on a platform right over the baptismal waters.

Diana, Jackie and Ruth became jacks-of-all-trades. “At the outset, there was no staff,” said Jackie. “We knew everyone who walked through the door. We did everything and sometimes twice.” They handled everything from student relations and scheduling to fundraising, writing brochures, doing budget, and paying the bills. In the era before voice mail, the school’s phone rang after-hours in Jackie’s house. Faculty members were interviewed in Jackie’s living room. And the trio even branched out into the moving business. After hearing the founders on local radio, a listener donated her harpsichord, which Diana and Jackie carried out of the donor’s home. The three founders fondly recall that period. As Diana put it, “We giggled our way through the day.”

To anyone watching Levine come together, it was quite clear that giggling was not all the founders were doing back then. Right from the get-go, they had an ambitious vision for an institution that would offer the full complement of early childhood music, instrument and theory lessons and recitals. All three came from New York City where Ruth and Diana had attended the High School of Music and Art, which later was merged into what today is LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts. Diana had also studied at Juilliard’s pre-college division. Jackie, who sang and played guitar, had just finished a stint as president of Georgetown Day School. Their ambition was to build a music school that would be home to top-flight musicians as well as beginners, accessible to those who could pay and those who couldn’t, a center for learning and for performance. In short, they wanted to build something very close to what we have today, more than twenty-five years later.

They didn’t have a twenty-five-year timeline in mind, however. While still in their first semester, they asked the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation for a substantial grant. “We were so brazen,” Ruth says now, about the effort to raise money from the foundation. “There was no earthly reason for anyone to give us that much money.”

But there was a reason, and that reason was that Levine filled a tremendous need in Washington. The city desperately needed an institution like Levine and that quickly became plain. “The phone didn’t stop ringing,” said Jackie. People wanted lessons, musicians for parties, and teachers for programs at places like the Sidwell and Oyster schools. Levine outgrew the church space in two or three years. After four years, Jackie and Diana stepped aside to make room for a paid director.

That director, Joanne Hoover, wrote in Levine’s newsletter in the spring of 1980 that the founders, “have put their particular mark of warmth and concern upon every activity in the school, setting off a chain reaction of the best kind.”

Many people who found organizations can’t let go. They view them as their own, not realizing that true success of an organization is measured by its independence and ability to sustain itself. One of the special characteristics of Levine’s three founders is their ability to let their creation take on a life of its own.

Jackie remembers one time walking into Levine when it was in its Georgetown home, then the site of an underutilized convent. “I walked in the building and up the stairs, and no one recognized me,” she recalls, “and I thought, we’ve arrived!”

Ruth remembers another incident that reflected their success. She was catching a taxi from Levine and just as she got into a cab, a young boy was getting out with a violin. She started talking to the cab driver, who said that the boy was his son. When she mentioned that she was one of the founders, the taxi driver stopped the car and turned to shake her hand. “I don’t know what you do in that school, but whatever it is, keep doing it,” he said.

The faculty and staff at Levine have kept on doing it; and after all these years it’s time to recall that Levine would never have started doing it were it not for Ruth, Diana and Jackie. And while some of the students might not recognize them, we here tonight recognize them, and recognize their vision, foresight, hard work and devotion to Levine. They have created something alive, and have touched the lives of thousands of people. Thank you, Ruth, Diana and Jackie.

Agnès Tabah 
May 2003, 25th Anniversary Gala