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How Sheila Nelson made me love the violin

Violin teacher Sheila Nelson in 1981, teaching in Tower Hamlets. Photograph: Marika Lemos

You probably didn’t know that my mother was also a journalist – the apple never falls far from the tree, as they say. She was the Newsweek correspondent at the United Nations in the 60s, as you can read in her compelling 2012 autobiography, Don’t Ask Me Where I Come From. But I only recently discovered that in 1981, she wrote an article about my first violin teacher, Sheila Nelson.

Sheila, now 78 and retired, is one of the most respected pedagogues of her generation. Starting off as a follower of Suzuki, and then Paul Rolland, she eventually created her own system for teaching kids ‘Right from the Start’, as her books are called, and my mother’s article goes into a little of her philosophy. I was lucky to begin with Sheila when I was five – my brother Rafael already learnt with her and I was envious of the lollipops he got at lessons and the ice cream and jelly at concerts, so my mother undertook two extra weekly trips to Cromwell Avenue, Highgate, for me to learn too.

Much more importantly than sweets, Sheila gave me an unending love of music and of playing, in both senses of that word. Because at the beginning, learning was about playing – there were games and fun, as my mother’s article captures. There were individual lessons and group lessons, and Saturdays were spent running up and down her house playing chamber music. I still play with the friends I made there when I was five. Not all of us turned out as maestros, but Sheila created generations of players who love music and still play chamber music, and for that we all owe her a gigantic debt of thanks – indeed the whole classical music world does.

The article is not about Sheila’s private teaching, though – it’s about a project she undertook in the 1980s to teach underprivileged kids in Tower Hamlets. The idea might sound familiar – only a few weeks ago I was at the graduation party at the Wigmore Hall for the Bridge Project, which is an ambitious and important scheme taking violins into the classes of Lambeth and Westminster schools. So there’s a certain heartbreaking frustration in knowing that the enormous value that Sheila created back then came to nothing when cuts were made to its funding, and that the wheel has had to be painstakingly reinvented. I don’t know much of the details of how the project ended, so I’d be interested to know if any of you have more information.

I’m publishing my mother’s article here, pretty much unedited, as a tribute to probably the two most influential women in my life.

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