Mapping Cultural Philanthropy

Back to Map About To Dumbarton Oaks

Levine Music

Levine Music, originally known as the Selma M. Levine School of Music, has been a center for musical education in Washington, D.C., since September 1976. Located now on five campuses in the metropolitan area, the faculty teaches over 3,500 students of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities.

We’re more than delighted when one of our students becomes a professional performer. But we’re equally delighted to produce a community of music lovers and amateur musicians.

Diana Engel

Levine Music’s three founders, Ruth Cogen (1935–), Diana Engel (1938–2015), and Jaclin (Jackie) Marlin (1931–), created an institution that has made its mark on the Washington cultural scene and inspired generations of children to become lifelong lovers of music. All three women grew up in New York City, where they benefited from an abundance of music schools. When they moved to Washington, D.C., in the 1960s, they encountered a very different musical landscape.

At that time, some public schools, colleges, universities, and music retail shops offered private lessons and classes with some ensemble experience. These included the American University’s Preparatory Division, the Fox School of Music in Virginia, the National Symphony Orchestra’s Fellowship Program, and a handful of others. However, only the private Washington Community Music School, which would close in 1980, offered an intensive music program.Cathleen A. Sawicki, “The Levine School of Music: Its Position in Comparison with Its Mission Goals from 1976 to 1986” (PhD diss., The American University, 1988), 1. Cogen, Engel, and Marlin recognized the need for a first-class community music school in the nation’s capital.

Founders of Levine Music Founders of Levine Music (left to right): Jackie Marlin, Ruth Cogen, and Diana Engel. Photograph courtesy of Levine Music.

The Namesake and Founders

To fill this need, Cogen, Engel, and Marlin thought of creating and naming a school after Selma Levine, a good friend who had died in 1976 in a tragic automobile accident. Because Selma Levine was a lifelong music lover, naming the new school in her memory was a fitting tribute to their friend.Sawicki, “Levine School of Music,” 1.

Selma M. Levine Selma M. Levine. Photograph courtesy of Levine Music.

Born in 1924, Selma Levine had a passion for music. She began playing the piano as a child, frequently sang in choral groups as an adult, and played the harpsichord in chamber ensembles.Carol Borut and Toni Allen, Celebrating 40 Years: A Levine Music Retrospective (Washington D.C.: Levine Music, 2016), Selma M. Levine: A Life Committed to Music and Community. After graduating from Wellesley College and Yale Law School, Levine became an attorney at Wald, Harkrader & Ross and earned a national reputation in food and drug law.“Selma M. Levine, 51, Dies; Food and Drug Law Expert,” New York Times, June 21, 1975. Throughout her career, she was an active philanthropist, offering support to the National Oratorio Society and the Bethlehem Bach Festival, among other institutions.Borut and Allen, Celebrating 40 Years, Selma M. Levine: A Life Committed to Music and Community. She also organized music nights at her D.C. apartment. “The merriest times of Selma’s life,” one friend recalls, “were with music.”Borut and Allen, Celebrating 40 Years, Selma M. Levine: A Life Committed to Music and Community.

Ruth Cogen was born in Manhattan, New York in 1935. Cogen studied voice and sang in the school chorus at the High School of Music and Art, a public school in Manhattan, and at Vassar College, where she was a member of the choir.Ruth Cogen, interview by Michael Bervell, January 11, 2018. She and her husband, the attorney Edward Cogen, settled in Washington, D.C., in 1963.Cogen, interview by Bervell. Cogen is a member of the all-women choral group for seniors at Levine, continuing her love of choral singing to this day.

Like Cogen, Diana Engel was an amateur musician who studied piano and violin in Juilliard’s precollege program.Matt Schudel, “Diana Engel, Lawyer and Co-Founder of Levine Music School, Dies at 77,” Washington Post, January 28, 2015. She graduated in 1958 from Barnard College and taught in Bronx, Baltimore, and New Haven schools before settling in the Shepherd Park neighborhood of Washington with her husband, Milton Engel, a psychiatrist. After helping lead the Levine school for several years, Engel attended law school at Georgetown University, graduating in 1983. She practiced family law at Liotta, Dranitzke & Engel until her retirement in 2014.Schudel, “Diana Engel.”

Jackie Marlin studied piano, played guitar, and regularly attended the New York Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Bryn Mawr College and a master’s degree in early childhood education from Harvard University, she taught at and became director of the Harvard Preschool. In 1961, she married David Marlin, an attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.Jackie Marlin, interview by Michael Bervell, January 11, 2018. She moved with him to Washington, where she became a teacher of Caroline Kennedy, daughter of President John F. Kennedy, at the White House Nursery School.

Cogen and Engel met in Washington, D.C., and became friends while sharing their common musical interests. They also connected over what they saw as a lack of musical instruction in the city. With the idea of starting a music school of their own, they contacted their mutual friend Marlin, who was chair of the board of trustees of Georgetown Day School. Marlin was convinced by the idea, and the three began to develop plans for the Levine School of Music.

Levine School of Music: Early Days

In April 1976, Cogen, Engel, and Marlin each put $100 toward the creation of the Selma M. Levine School of Music. This was enough to purchase three essential items: a typewriter, a mimeograph machine, and a telephone. With the help of Edward Cogen, the school received a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt designation. The three women contacted Selma Levine’s many friends scattered across the United States and abroad to solicit donations, with the hope of opening the school’s doors by September 1976. Within five months, they had raised just over $4,000, rented space at the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints in Northwest D.C., persuaded top musicians from the National Symphony Orchestra and area universities to become the first faculty members, and enrolled children for music lessons. The school was ready to open.Agnès Tabah, “Levine Founders: A Trio Con Brio,” Levine Music, May 2003,

In those early years, Cogen, Engel, and Marlin saw to every aspect of the school. Cogen was named chair of the board while Engel and Marlin became the volunteer codirectors. “At the outset, there was no staff,” said Marlin. “We knew everyone who walked through the door. We did everything that needed to be done, and sometimes twice.” The three women handled all aspects of the school, from hiring faculty and managing student relations, to budgeting, fundraising, and paying the bills. They even drove students home to get the music or instrument they had forgotten to bring to their lesson.Tabah, “Levine Founders.”

A Growing Enterprise

Levine faculty and staff, 1992 Levine faculty and staff, 1992. Photograph courtesy of Levine Music.

The number of students quickly increased from the original enrollment of fewer than one hundred.Tabah, “Levine Founders” and Sawicki, “Levine School of Music.” The immediate growth was due in large part to the ambitious vision that the founders had for the institution. Their goal was to build a music school that would be home to top-flight musicians as well as beginners; accessible to those who could pay as well as those who could not; and a center for learning and for performance. They wanted an institution that would offer the full complement of early childhood music, from instrument and theory lessons to recitals.

Within the first few months, the founders asked the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation for a $10,000 grant. “We were so brazen,” Cogen said forty years later about the effort to raise money. “There was no earthly reason for anyone to give us that much money.”Tabah, “Levine Founders.” With grant-writing assistance from Knight Kiplinger, an original trustee of Levine, they received this substantial grant at the start of their second semester. By that time, nineteen faculty musicians were teaching seventy students. At the end of the third year of operation, the school had outgrown the church space.

One year later, Engel and Marlin stepped aside as codirectors and the first professional and paid director, Joanne Hoover, was hired. Hoover was a natural fit for Levine, being a pianist, a teacher, a music critic for the Washington Post, and an administrator who had the right skills to take Levine to the next level.Borut and Allen, Celebrating 40 Years, Timeline: 1976–1986. In one of her first Levine newsletters in the spring of 1980, Hoover wrote that the founders “have put their mark of warmth and concern upon every activity in the school, setting off a chain reaction of the best kind.”Tabah, “Levine Founders.”

The Continuing Legacy of Levine

The founders’ mission for Levine has remained impactful over the past forty years, and the school is recognized today across the metropolitan area as a leading cultural institution, accessible to everyone regardless of race, gender, ability, or financial status.Peter Jablow, interview by Michael Bervell, January 11, 2018. Through fundraising events like special concerts and galas, Levine has placed importance on raising funds for financial assistance to students.Joseph McLellan, “Witty Tributes at Levine School Gala,” Washington Post, June 19, 1997. “From day one, Levine knew that the concept of community music education was reaching out to the community through scholarships,” said Knight Kiplinger. “Through outreach, bringing in diverse audiences, diverse groups of students, and significant scholarship resources, Levine makes accessibility not just a slogan, but a reality.”Knight Kiplinger, interview by Michael Bervell, January 11, 2018. Between 2011 and 2016 alone, Levine awarded over $4 million in scholarships to provide opportunities for all to study music.Borut and Allen, Celebrating 40 Years, Levine in the Community.

Levine’s curriculum has expanded from offering individual instruction in voice and instruments to include jazz, rock, musical theater, music therapy, and the opportunity for students to participate in ensembles, choruses, orchestras, and regional performances. It is one of a handful of community schools to be accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music, and it is one of only three All-Steinway community music schools in the country. The National Guild also certified Levine for Community Arts Education.Borut and Allen, Celebrating 40 Years, Levine in the Community.

Levine also hosts a series of faculty performances, Levine Presents, to build new audiences for music. Several times a year, Levine students participate in master classes with world-renowned artists such as Wynton Marsalis, Yo-Yo Ma, and Sutton Foster.Borut and Allen, Celebrating 40 Years, Master Classes at Levine. Levine’s activities also include community outreach through MusicaliTeas, free concerts performed by Levine faculty artists and students for seniors in assisted living facilities and nursing homes, and THEARC, Levine’s first permanent home in Southeast D.C., which hosts performances in its 365-seat theater. Levine’s musical theater company, Act Two, performs one of its musicals at THEARC every season. Moreover, Levine has presented numerous student, alumni, and faculty performances, free of charge, at venues such as Children’s Hospital, senior citizens’ homes, soup kitchens, city parks, federal buildings, and public schools.Borut and Allen, Celebrating 40 Years, Levine in the Community.

Levine’s commitment to community is reflected in its robust scholarship program and its campus at THEARC, where it serves several hundred students weekly and has been part of a revitalization of a long-neglected neighborhood. Levine also provides free early childhood music programs with community partners in disadvantaged neighborhoods across Washington, D.C. In recent years, Levine has added a music therapy program, opening its doors to children and adults with special challenges.

Ruth Cogen, Diana Engel, and Jackie Marlin, ca. 2000s Ruth Cogen, Diana Engel, and Jackie Marlin, ca. 2000s. Photograph courtesy of Levine Music.

As Levine’s vision is passed on from Cogen, Engel, and Marlin to the next generation, the hope of its founders is that Levine will continue to honor its original mission of providing excellent music education to all. “I’m always an optimist and I always envisioned something fabulous,” Engel reflected in an interview celebrating Levine’s first twenty-five years. “I wasn’t sure exactly how it was going to go and I didn’t realize how fast it was going to happen, also. But, I just pictured ‘this is a major city, it needed a major music institution.’ And the way I see it, it has one now.”Levine School of Music: 25 Years and Counting, documentary directed by Mark Muheim (Washington, D.C.: Muheim Motion Pictures, 2003).

Profile by Michael Bervell, 2018 Wintersession student, and Faye Yan Zhang, 2017–2018 Dumbarton Oaks Humanities Fellow.