The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music education: Let us now praise Marvin Rabin — who founded the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra (WYSO), who excelled as a music educator and performer, who was the Leonard Bernstein of Madison | December 8, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

Marvin Rabin  (below, seen at an award banquet in 2011) was always surprising people, even his biggest fans like me, with his boundless energy and persistence, his attentiveness and keen intelligence — all combined with his deep compassion and unending kindness and good humor.

Even when he was well into his 90s, and when his eyesight and hearing were failing and his walking was unstable, there would be Marvin Rabin, arriving at a concert just when you least expected to see him and you would have completely understood his absence.

He would usually take a seat up close to the stage, often helped by friends like Margaret Andreason or family, especially his violin-maker son Ralph Rabin.

But no longer.

Marvin Rabin died Thursday at the age of 97.

Rabin portrait USE

Marvin’s life was devoted to music, and especially to the young students who make it.

And how he knew those orchestral scores, so many of which he had conducted himself during his days of leading youth orchestras in Lexington, Kentucky; Boston, Massachusetts; and Madison, Wisconsin. Decades after he had performed a work, he would talk about it in details as if it were a fresh and new experience. His memory and knowledge were nothing short of phenomenal.

But it was in Madison that so much of his earlier career (recapitulated in a video seen below) came to full fruition. It was Marvin Rabin who in 1966 founded the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra while he was a professor the University of Wisconsin-Extension. Over the years, more than 5,000 students from more than 100 communities in southcentral Wisconsin benefitted from WYSO – which is to say Marvin Rabin.

Here is a link to the WYSO website with lots of information:

For more background about Marvin Rabin, here is a link to a terrific story done 2011 for The Wisconsin State Journal by Gayle Worland in the same year that Marvin won only the third Lifetime Achievement award given by the statewide Wisconsin School Music Association.

Rabin video

Until near the end Marvin kept travelling around the country to see friends and former students, and to consult about music education.

Marvin Rabin was the Leonard Bernstein of Madison. He had a regional, national and international reputation. He played at The White House. And he made understanding music and making music seem like completely natural and totally necessary, even inevitable, acts. He was a coach, an arts coach, whose enthusiasm moved people to achieve more than they ever thought they could.

Increasingly, research studies have demonstrated the lifelong benefits of studying instruments and making music as a young person, no matter what career you later take up. (Below are young violinists performing at his award ceremony.)

Rabin Young players 2

Marvin was way ahead of the curve of the score. Long ago, he knew firsthand the successes that learning to make music prepared you for with its discipline, its teamwork and cooperation, and its lifelong appreciation for the hard work of making beauty.

Little wonder, then, that when Marvin received his award, friends, colleagues and former students came from around the country to honor him. The event (below) was sold-out and crowded with grateful admirers.

Rabin crowd

The world of the performing arts, and especially the world of local music making, seems a smaller and less joyful place today without its ever-upbeat cheerleader, Marvin Rabin.

But his was a long life that was well lived, both for himself and for countless others. It’s just that we need more Marvin Rabins – today more than ever, given the shrinking budgets for arts education and the anti-intellectual attack from the right wing on serious cultural values.

Please: If you have a message about Marvin Rabin for his family and friends, his colleagues and students, leave it in the COMMENT section.

If you have a story to tell or a recollection to share, also please leave it in the COMMENT section.

I have yet to see a full obituary and plans for a memorial service. But when I do, I will post them and share them with you.

And here is a YouTube video of WYSO playing the special piece that University of Wisconsin tuba professor and composer John Stevens, composed to honor Marvin Rabin when he received his award and conducted by the composer.

It is called, fittingly, “Fanfare for an Uncommon Man.”

Marvin’s own voice may have been silenced, but his larger voice — the one he carried about most and cultured in so many young people — continues on and will always be heard .


  1. […] Wisconsin School Music Association (“Fanfare for an Uncommon Man,” in honor of the late Marvin Rabin), Germany’s Melton Tuba Quartett, and the New York Tuba Quartet. Many of his more than 50 […]

    Pingback by Tuba meister and composer John Stevens leaves legacy of song « Fanfare! — January 24, 2014 @ 3:13 pm

  2. It is so easy to see the sun, the moon, the bright stars–those young people who are born transcendently gifted and those young people who had been nurtured with high quality lessons and instruments. But, two thirds of the way down any string section in any student group, you will find the person with a rented instrument and a plastic bow playing their heart out. That child was never invisible to Dr. Rabin. He knew what everyone in his groups could do. He knew that eveyone could “twinkle”. Thank you, Dr. Rabin, for making my young music making life something wonderful and for opening up my world. You truly do live on through all of your students.

    Comment by Beth (Erickson) Getman — December 30, 2013 @ 6:19 am

  3. When I began teaching strings in Oshkosh in 1967, Marvin was a miracle who came into ours lives. He would travel around the state guiding and inspiring string teachers through his evening classes and summer schools, always with great kindness and understanding. After I moved to Australia and continued teaching there, the Australian String Teachers Association (AUSTA) brought him “Down Under” four times to work his magic at Conducting Workshops, National Conferences and also the International String Workshop in Brisbane. He was in his 80’s by then and still spreading his wisdom and warmth to hundreds of Aussie string teachers, many of whom continued to keep in touch with him, with energy and wit.

    Marvin was a gift to the world of music. His mentoring of young people as well as string teachers young and old will live forever. My deepest sympathy goes out to his lovely family.

    Katherine Trent

    Comment by Katherine Trent — December 13, 2013 @ 9:12 pm

  4. […] There is a moving and informative tribute from Jake Stockinger at The Well-Tempered Ear here. “… he made understanding music and making music seem like completely natural and totally necessary, even inevitable, acts. “ […]

    Pingback by Kenneth Woods- conductor — December 10, 2013 @ 9:41 am

  5. I was his student from 1971-1975 and was in honors symphony in high school. This man was everywhere – every concert – that smile. But what I will always remember him for is his pushing the envelope on how stringed instruments are played – he encouraged playing all types of music, not just classical music, and one of our exams was always to play a genre we didn’t know as well – with our instrument. Music to him had to be relevant, and he taught us that our instruments were extensions of ourselves – not just the music printed on the page from some bygone era. He was an educator and a mentor to so many of us.

    Comment by Cynthia Bates-Brown — December 9, 2013 @ 9:06 am

  6. Marvin Rabin was responsible for auditioning me in Evergreen while I was a member of the Colorado Phil (in the Walter Chas’ days) one summer in the mid-70s, and as a result recruited me to Madison to become a graduate quartet “fellow” and form a performing quartet, study with the incomparable Tom Moore, coach with the Pro Arte Quartet, and earn a masters degree, all generously subsidized. It was a wonderful, memorable two years at UW! I’ll never forget how kind and warm Marvin was in that audition. One thing he asked for was an A major scale in fingered harmonics at the 4th, which I’d not done at that point, and once he described what it was, I was able to do it on the spot. Of course he entirely put me at ease. I am thankful to Marvin Rabin and shall never forget his warm smile, twinkling eyes and demeanor, his musical knowledge, excitement at teaching, and all he did for me and for so many young musicians in training in all the youth orchestras he led.

    Comment by Wendy — December 9, 2013 @ 12:24 am

  7. I had the great good fortune to play in a touring youth orchestra (America’s Youth in Concert) with Maestro Rabin. His energy and musicianship, humor and great kindness helped bring out the best in me and my fellows. It helped me decide to make a career in music as a performer and educator. I wish to be as much like him as I can!

    Comment by Jane Kanestrom — December 8, 2013 @ 10:59 pm

  8. In this season of gift giving we can all be grateful for the gift Marvin Rabin gave us–increased opportunity for countless students to have access to string instruction, both individually and in orchestras, and music education in general. It is a legacy that will be timeless. He continued right into his 90’s going off and speaking at some conference, etc. He just had such a warm manner in communicating with people. I admire what he has done so much. If you want to give a gift that keeps on giving, go attend a music concert at your local school and then make a contribution to that school’s music program. Send it to the board of education with the memo marked for the music department or donate lessons to a needy student, or make a donation to the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras in Marvin’s memory. Marvin’s vision to make access to string instruction available to all students is an inspiration to both the students and the audiences that are wowed with each concert. What a truly amazing person he was.

    Comment by Renee Farley — December 8, 2013 @ 10:41 pm

  9. Marvin Rabin was the conductor of our North Dakota All-State Orchestra when I was in 9th Grade. I came home from that experience knowing that I wanted to keep playing in orchestras for the rest of my life. I have been in awe of Marvin Rabin ever since, and it was a honor to meet him again when I moved to Madison.

    Comment by Lynne Wymore — December 8, 2013 @ 8:04 pm

  10. What a well-written tribute to a dynamo of a man.My son played in one of the WYSO orchestras as well as the percussion ensemble in the 80’s, and went on to play tympani in his college orchestra.I’m sure his WYSO experience helped instil in him his lifelong love of music.

    Comment by Ann Boyer — December 8, 2013 @ 3:37 pm

  11. I had the opportunity to feel his influence indirectly through many of my teachers and mentors and then directly over the last 2 decades here in the Madison area. His leadership guides me every day with my high school orchestras and every week with the Middleton Community Orchestra (whose December 23 concert will be dedicated to Prof. Rabin’s memory–my last conversation with him was about the Beethoven 6th symphony we are performing that evening). I am confident that string teachers around the world will keep his legacy alive by continuing to pursue his ideals.
    We can all hope to learn as long as he did.

    Comment by Steve Kurr — December 8, 2013 @ 9:40 am

  12. One of the highlights for me of concerts at Mills Hall has been watching Marvin and Ralph walk in together; Marvin still going strong after my mom could only make it to events at Capitol Lakes (where she and Marvin were neighbors until her passing earlier this year) and even after she was gone. I will miss Marvin tonight when I see the UW Chamber Orchestra. It is not hyperbole to call him our Leonard Bernstein. As the founder of WYSO he has been the catalyst to many a musical career and still will be for years to come. I invite all to take this opportunity to renew our commitment to the musical education of youth and ensuring Marvin’s enduring legacy by supporting WYSO’s continuing mission. WYSO is at room 1625 Mosse Humanities Building 455 N. Park St Madison WI 53706.

    Comment by Steve Rankin — December 8, 2013 @ 9:14 am

  13. Thanks to Marvin, the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra was there for me in the1970s and the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra for my daughter in the 2000s. May many generations of my family and so many others continue to be enriched by his vision and inspiration to all musicians and educators.

    Comment by R Anderson — December 8, 2013 @ 8:11 am

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