Blog – A heartfelt thank you to Sheila Nelson, teaching guru.

I started teaching by accident. There, I’ve said it. I never had a burning desire (or any desire) to teach, despite teaching being in the family for several generations. However, once I’d left the idyllic bubble of university and landed my newbie feet in our fair capital city, I soon realised that the quickest way to start in music would be to say ‘Yes please, I’d love to ‘ to every offer of work that came my way.

Luckily these offers came thick and fast, sending me on my first tours with small theatre and dance companies, to various cold churches in Croydon for £15 Saturday dates as they were then (blew the first fee in advance on a pair of black suede concert shoes, got the heel stuck in a metal grate as I was waiting to go on stage), and to the hallowed halls of the National Theatre and RSC, but the most random offer was a few hours of cello teaching for Sheila Nelson’s String Teaching Project in Tower Hamlets.

I would have dismissed this out of hand as I definitely wasn’t going to teach (I didn’t really have the hang of portfolio careers at that point), but I had a bit of a girl crush on the friend who asked me. I thought if she was involved then I could definitely try it and see whether it was for me. She explained that it was as much social work as teaching, as it was in a socially deprived part of London. Something about this opportunity drew me in.

Within weeks I was in place as an observer for huge classes of mixed string instruments, always a crucial stage in any induction, and shortly after as an assistant (lots of crouching down to the child’s level and pointing at huge music charts from above the notes so they could follow even if they had only the vaguest of ideas what the notes were), tuning multiple tiny cellos, dodging wayward bows, and on one occasion giving an emergency shower to a cello a poorly child had vomited over. Not. Very. Glamorous.

But the key wondrous element to all of this was that on Tuesday afternoons all staff would gather in a small and stuffy upstairs room of Globe Primary School (think of a medium-rise tower block and then picture it as a Victorian primary school) and we would receive a seminar about aspects of string teaching and technique from Sheila herself. It was the best possible training. In those days we could literally be hands-on and we absorbed a hundred and one tips and ideas of how to teach. And, as importantly, what not to do. Sheila was an incredibly child-centred teacher and always possessed a genuine empathy with and understanding of a child’s view. She knew when to be serious and when to be light-hearted and was unerringly respectful to each and every child.

During these sessions there were seasoned peers available to discuss any questions that came up from the face-to-face work, we had lots of wonderful repertoire from Sheila Nelson, Paul Rolland, who was Sheila Nelson’s prime influence, Peter Wilson (one of our very jazzy accompanists) and others, and every week we would do a deep dive into what we were doing and why. We reflected on our own teaching practice, long before reflective journaling was widespread, and the weekly input was always valid and vibrant.

In Tower Hamlets the pupils were a mix of white working class children and children from the Bangladeshi diaspora, and as part and parcel of that we were working with children whose first language at home wasn’t English. Good communication with parents and pupils was key. Any parents who were unsure of the value of our music making were invited to attend some of our string sessions in school so they could experience it at first hand. Without fail they enjoyed the lessons and would then be enthusiastic supporters of our work, and I think it strengthened the home/school/community bond considerably. It helped that I lived very locally at that time, just behind Brick Lane.

Every week each child would have one whole-class lesson in the school hall, so it was a very audible part of day-to-day school life, and then a smaller ‘back-up’ lesson on a different day. They were allowed to take their instruments home once they’d shown they could control the bow and make a good sound with it.

Eventually the scheme came to the end of its natural span in Tower Hamlets but the posse of highly-trained specialist string teachers spread out across London and we took our work to many other schools and Saturday music centres.

Enjoying that golden standard of teaching made it hard to adjust when I moved away from the big city into rural life and could only find school-based work through music services. These organisations were operating by then under very different and restricted circumstances and eventually I realised that for the sake of my personal wellbeing I needed to step out of school teaching with its minimal contact with colleagues and dramatically reduced pupil contact time (one 20-minute lesson per week). Although I did enjoy the cross-country commutes in the pretty scenery there was a point where I was driving more than teaching and it was a very lonely lifestyle. It did teach me that rural deprivation was a thing though and that was food for thought

As I worked out my notice the uppermost thought in my mind was: I will never set foot in a school again!

Well, I’m sure you’re ahead of me. I moved once more, this time to Norwich, a maternity cover with Sistema in Norwich came my way and before I could say ‘tighten your bows please!’ I was back in the golden zone, in a team of experts delivering instrumental lessons via small and medium-sized string groups in primary schools. I do enjoy a little one-to-one teaching in my private practice, but the real fun stuff in schools takes place with team teaching where you can be inspired by colleagues, and of course by the children.

It’s a sheer pleasure to work with Sistema, and I’m incredibly grateful for thoughtful, considered and enriching lessons I learnt as a rookie teacher from Sheila Nelson in the 80s who set me firmly on the path of group teaching. Many thanks also to Robert Neden for his clip of Sheila Nelson having a few teaching minutes in the playground of Bonner Primary School in the East End.

Sheila Nelson, violinist, violist, educator, composer and writer, 5.03.1936 – 16.11.2020