Isabel Trautwein, Musician, Founder, El Sistema@Rainey


When she was 8, Isabel Trautwein had one of those “lightning moments” at summer music camp. Standing in front of a music stand, up to her knees in an Alabama lake and practicing violin, she felt the power and purpose a child can attain from playing an instrument.

“It was something my mom never would have allowed, but it was really cool,” she says with a laugh. “It was the first time I played violin with a ton of fun and freedom and possibility.”

Four years later, her German-born parents decided to return to Germany. There, Isabel studied violin intensively with a great violin teacher who lived near her family on the shores of Lake Constance. By 16, she was traveling to places as far as Africa, India and Israel as a member of Germany’s national youth orchestra.

She continued studying violin as she completed her undergraduate education in Germany, including a summer in a fellowship program with her string quartet at the Aspen Music School. Generous German government grants enabled her to attend the Cleveland Institute of Music for two years before beginning her professional career as a Concertmaster with the New World Symphony in Miami, Florida, and then the Houston Symphony in Texas.

Her next job with the St. Louis Symphony provided another turning point. She played violin with the Symphony half-time, and designed her own program to fill the off weeks: she and another musician performed in a wide range of community settings, from pre-schools to prisons. “That’s where I discovered my passion for playing in community settings that otherwise would not have music,” she says. She then joined the Pacifica String Quartet, in residency at the University of Chicago, and which also performed extensively in inner
city schools.

When Isabel joined the Cleveland Orchestra as a first violinist in 2002, though, she was still searching for a way to create a deeper connection between underprivileged children and music. She found it when a friend gave her a documentary about the El Sistema program in Venezuela, where 80 percent of the more than 350,000 children enrolled in the music-training program come from low-income families. In 2010, she took a year of unpaid leave to complete a fellowship in the El Sistema method at the New England Conservatory in Boston, and then traveled to Venezuela to learn how to administer the intensive afterschool program.

“Her sacrifices to be trained in the El Sistema approach speak to who she is,” says friend Nancy Osgood, president, The Osgood Group, Cleveland. “She’s driven personally to achieve musical excellence and leverage that for the benefit of kids who might not have the options she did when she was a child.”

The Cleveland Orchestra helped Isabel identify The Rainey Institute on East 55th Street in Cleveland as a site for an El Sistema program here. Working closely with Rainey’s Executive Director, Lee Lazar, she hired five teachers, and last year the program began with 30 children ages 7 to 11. The children all perform together, with the older kids helping the younger ones to improve their fingering and bowing techniques.

Thanks to Trautwein’s indefatigable efforts, students from El Sistema@Rainey have already performed three times at Severance Hall, including during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day community celebration. Impressed by the Youth Orchestra’s performance, Franz Welser-Most, Cleveland Orchestra music director, said: “I saw our future,” and has invited them to perform again at Severance Hall next season. Ongoing performances for the students at Severance Hall, roughly two miles away from Rainey, are critical to Isabel to connect them to the highest level of performance possible in the home of a world-class orchestra.

She is deeply indebted to the assistance from the community, as well, including support from the Cleveland and Gund Foundations and to The Cleveland Orchestra which partnered with Conn-Selmer to provide Sherl & Roth violins to El Sistema@Rainey.

“We’re not just putting a band-aid on, doing one-day visits,” Isabel concludes. “We’re forming a daily community to make the music we most love together, and we’re finding kids that are hungry for this world and are learning at the speed of light. That’s incredibly motivating!”

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