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Sheila Nelson and her work in Tower Hamlets

In the 1980s, string pedagogue Sheila Nelson took her seminal teaching techniques to underprivileged schools in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. In 1981, my mother, Lili Todes, a journalist, visited the project, and here, published for the first time, is what she wrote

Sheila Nelson, photo credit: Marika Lemos

At nine o’clock each Tuesday morning, half-term and holidays excepted, Sheila Nelson emerges from the back garden path of her home-cum-music academy in a tree-lined street on Highgate’s borders, stuffs the boot of her blue Fiesta with video and recording equipment, masses of music and her packed lunch, and points its nose in the direction of London’s Docklands.

Avoiding the scrim of fumes from the container lorries heading the same way, she dodges through a maze of side streets skirting the Seven Sisters Road. Through Highbury, Islington, into the Blackwall Tunnel. By a quarter past nine she emerges among the stacked-domino flats of Tower Hamlets. Here, in the shadow of a giant gas storage tank is her destination: Manorfield Primary School, the first of a group of schools which, in the past three years, in a very personal crusade, have become a mini-Mecca of string music for under-privileged children.

As she crosses the playground with her bags and her fiddle, an entire class of 6- and 7-year-olds are standing in line behind their teacher, ready to file into the hall, all 36 of them, and take their places on the tiny chairs spread out, with shiny small Chinese fiddles open and tuned in their cases next to them.

The projector is lit, the assistants, trainee teachers in clogs and boiler suits, move amid the ranks, fine-tuning a string here, jabbing at a scroll of a fiddle to level it with the shoulder. Like a general in front of this tiny army of fiddlers, Sheila Nelson thrusts up her bow and violin and calls them to arms: ‘I want to hear you sing!’ Her voice is raised over the buzz of excitement as she leads the singing that accompanies the bowing. ‘D has no fingers’, goes the chorus, ‘E has one finger, F has two fingers, G has three fingers!’ They imitate her sound and copy the position of the finger on the string from the illuminated board. She is teaching them the name and pitch of notes in the scale and what finger to place where on the string to obtain it. By the end of the 40-minute period, most children will have learnt another tune.

Next comes rhythm. Sheila claps it out, they clap it back, to the beat of well-familiar London landmarks, Piccadilly Circus, Waterloo and Charing Cross, to learn the time-value of crotchets and quavers. One little boy loses his concentration. He twirls his legs around his chair and gazes at the large-patterned wallpaper. Behind him, a curly-headed girl in patent leather ankle straps lays down her bow, crosses her arms with the air of a resolute striker. A student teacher gives her a poke of encouragement, without success. But most of the class are compelled into action by the verve of this itinerant magician lady with her shopping bags full of tricks leading them through this wonderland of sounds from the instruments under their chins.

Now, a game of musical chairs. They march around in a huge circle accompanied by a mustachioed young pianist in the tune ‘Cowboy Chorus’. When the music stops, Sheila confronts a child and plays a few bars. Alone, the child responds, trying to echo harmony and rhythm. For a brief moment in the group it is a solo she hears herself play. It tests her hearing and her ability to improvise. It is the beginning of making music, and Sheila can tell from the response the progress each individual child is making and recognise those who will really be good at it.

The morning’s highlight is when Sheila turns herself into a Bad Violinist. Turning her back she hunches and twists herself into improbable poses. Suddenly, she whizzes around to face her class and asks for volunteers to correct her. ‘Miss, Miss!’ Arms fly up for the privilege of poking and prodding her into shape. The boys particularly love the physical contact of tugging and pushing their teacher into the model of a fiddler they have been taught they should look like. Slowly, and for keeps, Sheila hopes, they will have learnt the posture of a Good Violinist.

The lesson is over for this week, for all, that is, but a few contestants for the Cowboy Chorus Test. A handful, tipped by the watchful student-teachers, cluster around the piano to perform this tune, solo. If they play it ‘with nice smooth valleys and mountains’, their coveted reward is that they may take home their fiddles. Up in the high-rise flats of Tower Hamlets, tenants live close and nerves are strung taut. Flowing bow movements avoid squeaks and frayed tempers. Of those around the piano this Tuesday, only two make it. They carry away their instruments in triumph for the supreme accolade: a pink spot stuck next to their names. The violins of those with pink spots will not be among those stacked on a great trolley and wheeled away to the school stores until next week. The lesson is over and Sheila gathers her teaching aids and her students and drives off to the next school.

It all started in 1976 when Sheila Nelson returned from a Churchill Scholarship in America, where she had studied with the string-teaching techniques of the late Paul Rolland. A phone call from the Inner London Education Authority’s Peter Shave invited her to help set up a music centre for youngsters in secondary schools of musically neglected areas, which could also serve as an in-service training for student teachers.

After 20 years teaching the violin to the gifted, highly supported children of England’s music Establishment, Sheila was keen to try her very personal and highly successful way of teaching on children who had never seen a fiddle in their lives or had a tune sung to them.

It was different from anything she had attempted before. Not only had she to contend with a group of children who couldn’t necessarily pitch a note; she was venturing into territory where a violin was ‘sissy’ and more likely to be smashed in the playground than have music coaxed out of it.

What is more, playing a string instrument requires some background in music, dedication, discipline and practice. Most of all, it requires support from home. Traditionally in England, these requirements have been the monopoly of the middle classes. One Manorfield child who had been allowed to take her fiddle home was asked by a student-teacher the following week, ‘Well, did you practise?’ The child excitedly replied, ‘Yes, Miss, I practised all the time, I did, I practised!’ When asked what practice mean, the child thought it was merely having the violin in her sitting room, and had not the faintest idea that the slow going-over of the day’s lessons was what practice was all about. Nor are most parents encouraging this exercise because, as the class teacher points out, ‘they really can’t stand the noise’.

Sheila is in no way daunted by the raw material. Instead of practice, as she expects it from her private pupils under the aegis of their parents, she has organised small groups of back-up lessons to span the week. And if there’s an awareness on her part that she is bestriding a vast class gap in her unremitting drive to get the Docklands children to play tunefully, it is merely to work harder to understand their difficulties better and to persuade parents by organising concerts and showing them tapes of their children in group playing. ‘She’s a lady with a mission,’ says one of her helpers. ‘It’s simply to make as many children as possible enjoy music for as long as possible.’

Originally a follower of Suzuki, Sheila felt that learning to play by ear with a kit comes to a dead halt with the transition to learning to read music. She was easily convinced by Paul Rolland and while his ‘Action in String Playing’ forms the basis of her teaching, she has evolved a method all her own of translating a highly sophisticated instrument into the simple terms of a child’s everyday life, using the vocabulary and language of their daily experience and really applying common sense to the teaching of the violin. She has succeeded in transforming music into a visual experience and translating teaching into the simplest terms. The rest is down to her dynamic approach based on the assumption that the children she is teaching have the same dynamic and are therefore capable of playing music. ‘She simply looks a kid in the eye while she’s demonstrating a movement, and you can actually hear the penny drop,’ says one of her assistants.

Even so, among the children of Tower Hamlets, some are more able than others to imitate and learn. But for Sheila and her helpers each one is a success, and everyone worth teaching. Just as she never rejects a pupil in her private class once she has heard them, neither does she ever exclude any of her Docklands pupils. Perfection is not the name of the game: enjoyment in music-making is. And if a young Kreisler should emerge from Bethnal Green, that’s an extra reward.

This remarkable success at keeping children at it shows every sign of spilling over into the mixed ethnic and economic groups in her care. No drop-outs this year or last. One hundred per cent survival. Even if in the future they don’t continue, Sheila feels they will encourage the next generation to handle a string instrument. She feels, in fact, that she is creating a climate in which music will happen quite naturally.

At 45, Sheila Nelson enjoys fame among her fellow musicians, many of whose children she teaches. Hopes of finding new vacancies for new pupils in her private or group lessons have had to be abandoned by most. Her timetable is simply filled, with children and young people, some of whom she has taught from the age of three.

‘Children just don’t give up playing, with Sheila,’ says one mother. Her passionate aim to keep children playing through difficult periods where interest flags, produces instant remedies at the right moment: a new piece to learn, a new way with the vibrato, a competition to enter, a TV programme to perform on.

Her successes adorn her bookcase: silver medallists, semi-finalists in national competitions, finalists in some, distinctions and honours. A staggering result considering she stubbornly refuses to select her pupils on merit.

Despite her successes, she is tirelessly trying to broaden the range of her teaching. This means making the instrument easier to understand and therefore more accessible to youngsters of all abilities. Using metaphors from their world, she does it lovingly and with the conviction that music is within every child’s reach.

Whether or not these children in the Docklands will become great musicians of the future, if indeed they even carry on beyond the secondary school stage, is beyond Sheila’s conjecture. She has set herself the task of teaching them to make music. It is entirely possible she will succeed.

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