Imagine an elderly woman trapped in a stronghold of isolation because Alzheimer’s has destroyed the bridge that leads to her family and memories. Now imagine a young boy trapped in a similar stronghold because he was born blind and autistic, never having a bridge to begin with. Now imagine something that can be a bridge for these two individuals of such different ages, different life experiences, and different afflictions. This bridge is made of notes, not nails. It’s made of songs, not steel. It’s the bridge of music, and the Levine School of Music is building it.
“When I heard that music therapy was being used to address the growth of autism across the country, I felt that we, as an institution, had an obligation to offer such a significant service to the community,” says Peter Jablow, the President and CEO of the Levine School of Music (Levine). That was in 2008, and as the recession hit and enrollment dipped for the first time in years, a Trustee of the school, Marian Osterweis, performed a thoughtful feasibility study and found that the Washington metropolitan region was underserved in music therapy. “The need existed, and I felt we could fill it well, so we approached a local foundation, who generously provided us with a grant to develop a business plan for the new venture. I then took the plan to Levine’s Board of Trustees, who perceived the incredible value in the service and urged me to launch it in spite of the recession.”
The program has now been up and running for more than a year, and Levine is also running pilot music therapy programs in three Sunrise retirement homes. “Some Alzheimer’s residents have trouble speaking and go into a virtual shell, but if you start playing a song from the era in which they grew up, they come to life,” Peter explains. “It’s remarkable. It’s about reaching people in ways they’ve never been reached before.”
This requires approaching things in ways they’ve never been approached before, and Peter’s leadership follows in the grand tradition of others who formed Levine to do just that. As the preeminent center for music and music education in the greater Washington area, Levine was launched in 1976 by three visionaries—Ruth Kogen, Diana Engel, and Jackie Marlin—who remain on its board today. Having originally come from New York City, the forward-thinking founders decided that Washington needed a music school, so they put together a plan and filed the corporate paperwork. Tragically, a lawyer and good friend named Selma Levine passed away in a car accident earlier that year. “She was an accomplished violinist, well known not only for the quality of her legal work, but also for her ability to bring people together through music,” Peter explains. “Naming a community music school after her was the perfect tribute.”
Though the organization had a humble beginning in the basement of a Georgetown church, the founders resolved to hire only the highest caliber faculty. They then found Joanne Hoover, who served as the first director and grew the school beautifully. Interestingly, the school’s first violin teacher was Sheila Johnson, now a prominent figure in black entertainment and an internationally known entrepreneur.
Thus, through hard work and an indelible passion for music, a foundation for service and success was laid. When Ms. Hoover departed, however, the school struggled to find a suitable replacement. “Every enterprise goes through peaks and valleys,” Peter points out. “Levine was trying to define its role in the community, present and future. Did it need to raise new money to start new programs? What did the community want? To some extent, Levine began as a one-room schoolhouse, and over time it added new room after new room and became a sprawling rambler that needed some creative renovation.”
When Peter was hired ten years ago, he took on the rambler that Levine had become and sought to add structure and focus, converting it into a growing enterprise with defined skills and sophisticated specialization. He tightened up its programming to make room for services that targeted specific needs within the community, like the music therapy program. Today, the Levine School is an $8 million organization that hosts 3,500 students each week. With a faculty of 160, Levine serves the greater Washington community through four campuses–two in D.C., one at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland, and one in Arlington, Virginia. Its main campus is a 35,000 square foot Italian villa on the historic register that provides an ideal atmosphere for the kind of transformative musical experiences Levine is known for. More than simply a great school, it is a cultural institution that provides music services and programs to the community, including over 200 performances around the metropolitan area each year.
Decades before Peter was leading Levine to new heights, he was honing those leadership skills as a teenager in a variety of competitive sports and student programs. “I was cocky enough to think I had a better way of doing things and that I could convince others to believe in the cause,” he laughs. He was born and raised in the heart of Manhattan, where his parents and grandparents worked in the garment district manufacturing women’s coats and suits. “Growing up in New York was an education in itself,” he points out. “You become street smart whether you realize it or not.” As an aspiring athlete, Peter would yearn to escape the concrete of the city on the weekends. He wanted to be the next Mickey Mantle and could bat from both sides of the plate, and he would stay up late into the night listening to Les Keiter recreating baseball games on the radio.
Peter started college at the University of Pennsylvania studying metallurgical engineering, but he was not particularly drawn to the field and soon decided to transfer into liberal arts, ultimately earning a degree in Psychology. He didn’t know where he wanted his professional path to take him, so to appease his father, he took the entry exams for law, business, and medical schools. However, instead of going to graduate school, Peter decided to try his hand at teaching for a few years. He was head counselor at a boy’s camp in Maine during the summer after he graduated from Penn, and then landed a position teaching at the Millbrook School in upstate New York.
Peter arrived at the school in the fall of 1971 to find a stuffy, strict institution that was a distant cry from the contemporary thinking style he had learned in college. “I knew I was either going to be a change agent at the school, or I was going to leave,” he remembers. In faculty meetings, he did not say a word for many months but instead soaked up information as he heard the Millbrook faculty puzzle over the school’s distressing drug problem. Then, at one faculty meeting in December, four months after he had arrived at Millbrook, Peter finally raised his hand to address the headmaster and his fellow faculty members.
“I just want you all to know that if I were a student at this institution, I would definitely be on drugs,” he challenged. The headmaster asked why, to which Peter replied that Millbrook, though it meant well, wasn’t speaking to this generation and offered an outdated learning environment. “It seemed to me to be an education model that didn’t work anymore,” Peter explains.
He expected to be chastised, but the headmaster instead said he agreed with many of the points Peter had made and challenged the young teacher to offer a plan to support his ideas. Peter said he would be happy to do so, but would need a budget and a defined commitment from the school. With that, the headmaster reallocated some funds, and soon thereafter Peter became the Director of Student Activities. With that, he created programs where, instead of students having to attend study hall whenever they had free time, athletes, professors, musicians, and other interesting speakers came in to talk with the students about an array of diverse and exciting topics. “We created opportunities where the kids could participate and use their minds in different ways, and I brought in people from all over the country and from organizations like the National Geographic and NFL Films,” he explains. “It really was an attempt to transform the culture of the school, and to stimulate thinking in new ways.”
Peter stayed on for three years before deciding to attend graduate school in journalism at Boston University. While getting his masters degree, he worked for the Real Paper and the Phoenix, did radio news and reviews on the NPR affiliate (WBUR-FM) at the University, and worked on the Suburban Report for the NBC (WBZ-TV) affiliate. “I was loving the various part-time jobs, but then my wife and I decided to have our first child, so I felt I needed one better paying job,” he remembers. With that, he became the communications director for a regional nonprofit called the Metropolitan Cultural Alliance, a trade association for the non-profit arts and entertainment community. Then, after advising a group of arts leaders in Washington, D.C. who were starting a similar organization, he accepted the position to become the first Executive Director for the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington in 1978. After working for five years in that capacity, he met Abe Pollin, among the most philanthropic and transformative figures in Washington. Abe invited Peter to come to work to launch his ticketing business, the mid-Atlantic TicketMaster franchise. Peter accepted Abe’s offer and ran the franchise for the next ten years.
Next, in an effort to spend more time with his growing family, Peter began his own consulting group, and among his clients was National Public Radio (NPR), a wonderful membership network providing invaluable radio news and cultural programming throughout the 50 states. Delano Lewis, the CEO of NPR and a good friend, asked Peter to develop a plan to make NPR more solvent, more efficient, and better as an operating institution. Del liked the plan that Peter proposed and wanted him to join NPR as its COO to implement the plan himself. “How often do have the opportunity to work for a national treasure?” Peter points out. “It spoke to me. What NPR does, nobody else does in the journalistic world.”
Peter worked at NPR for five years and loved his tenure there, putting the organization on the road to success and helping to restructure its operations. What started as a $40 million organization when Peter began working with Del, grew quickly to a $70 million organization, and has grown to well over $100 million today. He also picked up invaluable leadership practices from Del, who believed firmly in engaging everyone, listening to disparate views, and brainstorming in a room of people who may disagree with one another. “He was so interested in what the dissenting voices had to say that he would even go to the extent of engaging people he knew he ultimately wouldn’t agree with,” says Peter. “I found that fascinating and inspirational.”
All in all, up to that point in time, Peter’s professional life had been nothing short of charmed, but after Del retired and Peter helped to train NPR’s new CEO, he made what he refers to as the first bad career move of his life. At that time, in the middle of the dotcom boom, and with his background in media, journalism, and management, he had several opportunities to lead dotcoms in New York and Boston, but he instead decided to stay in Washington and start the media practice at KPMG Consulting, which was about to go public and become Bearing Point. However, after six months in his new position, he knew it wasn’t the right fit for him. “For Bearing Point it was all about billable hours and valuation,” he explains. “At that time, I was also serving as Chairman of the Board of Round House Theatre in Bethesda, which I enjoyed much more, and that really spoke to me. It was then that I was approached by a headhunter, whose client was the Levine School.”
Peter had known Levine since its beginning. At first, he said “thanks, but no thanks” to the headhunter, as it was too soon in his Bearing Point tenure to consider an alternative. But when the headhunter came back some nine months later with an altered job description and the promise that Levine was a far different institution than the one he had known in the past, Peter reconsidered. Extensive talks with his thoughtful wife, Judy, led him to realize that working for a major nonprofit might mirror the excitement and passion he had felt working with NPR and Round House Theatre, and though the Levine School operated on a smaller scale, Peter was intrigued by its complexity, as well as its immense potential to grow and serve more people in the Washington region. “What Levine was providing was very unique, and of the highest quality, and its Trustees impressed me not just with their vision for Levine, but with their passion for music and music education as a transformative force in our society,” he says. “My own passion had always been in the nonprofit sector, so it felt like a great match. If you can do well by doing good for the community around you, why would you want to do anything else?”
In advising young entrepreneurs today, Peter stresses the importance of following one’s passion. “Whether there’s a job out there for you or not, there’s always something for you to do,” he says. “If you have a good idea, work at it and develop it. If you’re passionate and dedicated and work hard, you will find a career. If you love going to work every day and really enjoy what you do, it makes all the other challenges in life a whole lot easier to confront. Get in, dabble, and experiment with your life. Find what really speaks to you, and then pursue it with ungodly passion. For many, success back in the 60s and 70s was measured by how much money you made and who you worked for, but I don’t think it works that way anymore. It’s what you do that makes you happy, no matter how much or how little money you make.”
Beyond this, Peter sings the merits of being able to do well through doing good. With students as young as four months and as old as one hundred years, Peter is helping Levine reach more and more people each day. “It’s remarkable how the language of music touches people in ways that move and motivate them,” he says. “And the great thing about it is that there’s something in music for everyone. We have students who go on to conservatories like Curtis, Peabody, Juilliard, or Northwestern, but most of what we do is geared toward those who just want music to be part of their lives. It allows people to enjoy life through a language that speaks to them in a whole different way.”
Whether they’re building bridges to memories of the past, the possibilities of the future, or a brighter today, Peter and his team are charting new terrain with a timeless tool and helping more people because of it.