Community Music School Student Appears on NPR’s "From the Top"

June 29, 2020

Cathy Partlow Strauss ’84

female violist performing
Natalie Brennecke, an 18-year-old viola student at Oberlin's Community Music School, performed on NPR's From the Top in February. The program is scheduled to air on NPR stations in September.
Photo credit: Cameron Whitfield

Raised in Oberlin, 18-year-old violist Natalie Brennecke named a Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist.

For 17 years, Oberlin Conservatory’s Community Music School (CMS) has shared the Conservatory’s mission of supporting the teaching, creating, and performance of music at the highest level. This year, one of the school’s standout musicians, 18-year-old violist Natalie Brennecke, demonstrated the power of that mission.

Brennecke won the opportunity to perform on the NPR-distributed radio program From the Top, a weekly showcase of exceptional young classical musicians from across America. Her February appearance on the program was recorded at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax, Virginia. She played the second movement from Miklós Rózsa’s Viola Concerto. A national broadcast is slated for release on September 7, 2020. (Check your local station listings for the broadcast in your area.) 

Brennecke was also one of just 20 students nationwide named a 2020 Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist, which includes a $10,000 award—presented by From the Top and sponsored by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation—that she plans to put toward the purchase of a viola.

Brennecke began her studies at the Community Music School when she was 5 years old, working with Christiana Reader on Suzuki violin. She converted to the viola and started studying with Louise Zeitlin 10 years ago.

violist Natalie Brennecke smiling
photo courtesy Natalie Brennecke

"I just loved the sound of the viola," recalls Brennecke. "I still love it. But now, I also really appreciate the versatile mid-range of the instrument."

Zeitlin, also director of the Community Music School and an associate professor in the Conservatory’s Division of Pedagogy, Advocacy, and Community Engagement, "noticed a spark from the very beginning."

"Natalie has demonstrated steady growth, and her parents have been an important part of her support system," Zeitlin says. "They are very devoted to CMS, and I couldn't ask for better parents of my students." Brennecke's younger brother is also a violist at CMS.

In addition to classes and lessons at CMS, Brennecke supplements her studies with periodic lessons with violist Jeffrey Irvine and takes advantage of the young artist chamber program—a new initiative with CMS students who receive coachings with Oberlin Conservatory faculty. She is also a member of the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra (COYO). Earlier this year, Brennecke won the COYO Concerto Competition.

It’s a busy schedule, but Brennecke juggles it wonderfully. "Natalie's pretty organized," says Zeitlin, "and performing has always been a regular part of her diet."

When asked about the role of competitions in music study, Zeitlin offers that "everyone is different. For Natalie, competitions are just an extension of performing."

"Competitions push you. And the adrenaline helps me focus to play my best," says Brennecke enthusiastically.

All this would probably be overwhelming except for the benefit of home-schooling, which has allowed her to manage days that include several hours of practice. "This allows me flexibility I really need," Brennecke says. "I can practice when it's most beneficial for me, and get to rehearsals and music classes.

"CMS does a great job of supporting students who want to go for music," she adds. "I would be nowhere if I didn't have the support of the people at CMS. They provide so many ways for you to grow as a musician." In the fall, she’ll be attending the Cleveland Institute of Music.

"The social element of CMS is just as important, and it's provided community for Natalie,” says Zeitlin. “It's an important balance to strike. I always say, 'Unless they're having fun, you might as well not do it.'"

The Oberlin Community Music School provides instruction to musicians of all ages regardless of socioeconomic background, with the goal of training the next generation to love music. The school’s enrollment has more than quintupled since 2005—an outstanding development that also increases the strain on its available resources to support scholarships for students in need. Contributions to the Community Music School can be made at

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