Sheila Nelson obituary

String teacher who introduced young pupils in small groups to the pleasure of making music together

The violinist and string teacher Sheila Nelson, who has died aged 84, pioneered bold insights into how children can be guided toward discovering the joys of music-making without coercion, and taking pleasure in sharing them. These teaching methods came to be widely adopted, and introduced many children to playing music who might not otherwise have discovered it.

She modelled them on group rather than individual teaching for the youngest pupils, and always encouraged children to learn from each other. That message was embodied in the title of Right from the Start, a collection of 20 elementary string pieces and one of her bestselling books, published in 1993. Sheila profoundly believed that young players could feel the power of making music together from the very beginning.

I first encountered the impact of her work by chance in the late 1990s. As a parent in search of a music teacher in north London, I fortuitously encountered several for whom Sheila was a profound influence. They shared her belief in the value of group learning for the youngest pupils – “copying someone almost your size but just a little bit better”, as she put it in the 1987 Thames TV documentary Beginners Please. They also respected her no-nonsense approach to teaching everyone the same way, whether nervous beginners or advanced teenagers, and her commitment to devising personal solutions for each child, especially if they were struggling to keep up.

As a violinist herself, Sheila Nelson played with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and leading chamber orchestras
As a violinist herself, Sheila Nelson played with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and leading chamber orchestras Photograph: none

Meeting Sheila occasionally in the late stages of her career, at music events and in the homes of her flock of disciples and former pupils, one could not miss the spark that had lit it all, in how engaged her listeners, regardless of age or expertise, would frequently be. Blunt, warm and efficient, she radiated an understated authority – and a raft of useful one-liners delivered in the Mancunian accent she never lost: “Teach only one new thing per lesson”, “Ten minutes’ practice in the morning is worth 20 in the afternoon”, “Put a timer on it, then stop!”

When the news of Sheila’s death emerged, after she had been suffering for some years from Alzheimer’s disease, Sir Simon Rattle, music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, called her “a true groundbreaker – and the results of her inspiring work are clear to see in the dizzying number of performing musicians and teachers who count as her progeny”.

Through personal example and a prolific output of instruction books and compositions, Sheila showed that progeny how to play and teach music that sounded good, and to share a sense of community while doing it. Her positive, quickwitted and humorous delivery made her classes enormous fun (dice and repurposed roulette wheels often transformed the routines of choosing the next piece or scale to practise), and if her pupils generally progressed quickly but in what seemed a relatively effortless manner, it was because they had already internalised the fundamentals through games, rhythm, song and movement. And like all good teachers, she quickly learned children’s names and remembered them. Every child in a group knew that she noticed them.

Born in Manchester, Sheila was the second of three children of Cyril Nelson, an engineer and keen pianist, and his wife, Mary (nee Greaves), an accounts clerk. She learned the violin from early childhood, and was soon teaching her younger brother Michael.

At Manchester high school for girls she was head girl in her final year, and in the 1950s studied the violin at the Royal College of Music in London while taking a BMus degree at London University. Subsequently, she studied at the Copenhagen Conservatory, and Birmingham University. As a freelance violinist she played with the Menuhin Festival Orchestra, the English Chamber Orchestra and other chamber orchestras, and also with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Increasingly drawn towards teaching, in her book The Violin and Viola (1972) she wrote about the importance of training teachers and the “vicious circle of incompetence which can arise from poor teaching, and the perpetuation of incorrect techniques”. Awarded a Churchill fellowship in 1976, Sheila worked alongside the violin pedagogue Paul Rolland at the University of Illinois. When she returned to the UK, she was ready to practise a new approach merging her own ideas with the whole-class string teaching method she had seen in the US.

Sheila Nelson  and a group
Sheila Nelson saw how whole-class string teaching worked in the US, and when she developed her own ideas was encouraged by the Inner London Education Authority Photograph: none

Invited by the Inner London Education Authority to help set up a music centre for youngsters in the primary schools of musically neglected areas in 1976, Sheila led a string teaching project in Tower Hamlets, in the east of the city. Her work there gave rise to a series of books for all string instruments and a programme in which trainee teachers worked alongside experienced teachers in the classroom while receiving pedagogic training from her.

By contrast with the middle-class children she had taught for the previous 20 years, Sheila was now working with children unfamiliar with string instruments, but she was always convinced that every child had the potential to play well at whatever level. In 1987, the six-part Beginners Please documentary was made about the Tower Hamlets project, culminating in a performance at the Royal Festival Hall, and a book of the same name. Music-teaching projects around the world took inspiration from it.

Sheila also had a flourishing private teaching studio based on her home in north London, with pupils receiving lessons twice a week, a short individual lesson and a longer group lesson. Her students would all descend on her house at weekends to play in chamber groups augmented by local young cellists. In 1990 her student Nicola Loud became BBC Young Musician of the Year, and many have gone on to careers in solo, chamber or orchestral music, or continued to play as enthusiastic amateurs.

In 2010, Sheila received an award from the European String Teachers’ Association, and was also made an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music. She continued to teach until illness made it impossible, but retained her love of music to the end of her life.

She is survived by her brother Michael, a nephew and a niece.

Sheila Mary Nelson, violinist and teacher, born 5 March 1936; died 16 November 2020


John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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