Marvin Rabin, whose name is synonymous with music education in Wisconsin, is being remembered as a talented conductor and teacher, and a passionate advocate for young musicians.

Rabin died late Thursday at UW Hospital after a brief illness. He was 97.

“His influence is felt worldwide,” said Kevin Thays, spokesman for the Wisconsin Center for Music Education, which houses Rabin’s musical scores from a long career as a youth orchestra conductor.

“People come here not only to look at the music, but to see his personal notes,” Thays said. “The personal notes — that’s the draw.”

Rabin’s draw also was his engaging personality and intellect, musical talent and an intense commitment to bringing opportunities for music-making to young people from all walks of life. He was founding conductor of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra, the state’s flagship orchestra for musicians ages 9 to 18.

Rabin, the father of three, was known particularly as a string development specialist and conducted youth orchestras in 48 states as well as Canada, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Europe.

His teaching and conducting influenced generations of students, including many who went on to become conductors themselves.

In November, he attended a performance at UW-Madison conducted by Madison native Kenneth Woods, now artistic director of the English Symphony Orchestra, who credited Rabin for inspiring him to pursue music when he was only 4 years old, said Rabin’s son Ralph. And shortly before his death, Rabin talked about traveling to Chicago this month to attend a music educators’ conference where another former student was receiving an award, Ralph Rabin said.

“He was active and engaged till the end,” his son said.

Born in 1916, Marvin Rabin took his first violin lessons in his hometown of South Bend, Ind., then won a scholarship to a small Kentucky university where he played viola. His plans to become a high school history teacher were thwarted by anti-Semitism, his family said, so he went into music teaching instead.

After service in the U.S. military as a flight instructor, he used the GI bill to earn a master’s degree from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. There, he met his late wife Rhoda, a pianist and bassist. Rabin later earned a doctorate from the University of Illinois.

He went on to lead the Central Kentucky Youth Symphony Orchestra, and later was hired by Boston University to teach and also conducted the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, which performed for President John F. Kennedy at the White House. At age 50, Rabin was lured to Madison to help shape and lead WYSO.

Rabin received countless service awards, including the 2000 Wisconsin Governor’s Award in Support of the Arts. Both WYSO and the American String Teachers Association named awards for outstanding arts leaders in his honor.

“Marvin Rabin was the most passionate advocate for youth orchestras that the world has ever known,” said Bridget Fraser, executive director for WYSO, which plans to memorialize Rabin at its Winterfest concerts in March.

“He really believed in making music accessible, and not an elitist thing,” his son Ralph told the State Journal in a 2011 profile. “As a teacher, he makes students feel the importance of who they are and what they can become.”

Survivors include sons Ralph and David, daughter Martha, three granddaughters and one great-granddaughter.

The family is planning a Dec. 29 memorial service. Details are pending.

[Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflect a correction. Rabin led the Central Kentucky Youth Symphony Orchestra in Lexington, but was not its founder.]

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(2) comments


Both of my daughters started playing violin in fourth grade, in the elementary school strings program that Marvin Rabin started.

Then, they went on to play in the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra -- which Rabin founded.

Then, when they went on to UW-Madison, both played in the All University Strings -- a program for non-music-majors, founded by Marvin Rabin.
Prof. Rabin has had a profound effect on my daughters' lives, and the musical life of this city. Thank you!


Wonderful memories about Marvin Rabin.......

I was a music student at a small liberal arts school in southern Wisconsin in the latter part of 1965. I was desperate for an increased learning curve, and moved back to Madison in early 1966. My first orchestral experience there was with Marvin....

It was the Haydn Sinfonia Concertante, with U.W. faculty members, and the Dvorak 8th. (Not sure about the might have been Kabalevsky...) I recall Marvin asking a bunch of us how we felt about his beat-pattern in the Dvorak 3rd movement trio...... It was terrific to feel included in an artistic consideration.

It was one fabulous step along the way to a professional career in music.

Marvin...thank you so much!

Tom Watrous
Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (1972 - 2010)

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