Jean Nelson embodies entirely the distinction of a Ruth and James Ewing Arts Lifetime Achievement Award recipient.
Seventy-eight years is, after all, a full lifetime by any measure. And achievement … well, where to begin?
One would have a lesser assignment chronicling those Nelson met who were not somehow touched by her talents, mentorship and passion, or to tally roles – mostly volunteer – she hasn’t taken on in the local music, performance arena and the community.
At the Hillside Village complex, where she and her husband, Doug, now live, she bebops around the sprawling indoor halls and rooms with youthful energy. Her steps are shorter, but she bounces, on her toes, eyes straight ahead, as if her journey’s end is a beautiful, flights-of-fancy destination.
Her smile and buoyancy belie being saddled with the debilitating and deforming effects of years of rheumatoid arthritis in her hands … the very hands that defined her for so much of her remarkable and talented career as an accomplished accompanist, drama and vocal director and high school teacher.
But she doesn’t complain; it’s her challenge, not others.
In a corner of the Hillside Kimball Temple Performing Arts Center is Nelson’s shiny and handsome Mason & Hamlin Grand piano. She bought it right out of college, for $200, and has had it since, going on nearly six decades. She had it completely rebuilt.
It’s for others to play now, but “it’s fitting that it can be here,” Nelson said.
Fitting not just symbolically, but because Nelson is starting the “Hillside Voices” at her new group home. The ensemble will feature singers and others living at the retirement community who play instruments.
Friends of the arts who live in the development asked Nelson to take on the role.
They didn’t have to ask twice.
Jean’s love for music has been and still is her greatest gift to share.
Her proteges span the decades of her professional career, her legacy not given to the vestiges of time, but, rather, visible and alive. The 46th edition of the popular Keene High Nostalgia show, which Nelson imagined and launched, was earlier this year, an entertaining, ranging and high-energy showcase of student talent that always brings the house down.
Marty Mahoney remembers the event well, and Nelson’s vision and hard work that drove it. At the center of what defines Nelson, he said, is that she allowed students to express themselves in their own ways.
Nostalgia, he said, was a great example of playing to individuality and cultivating it, when it would have been easy
for Nelson to impose something different she might have imagined.
A 1986 Keene High grad, Mahoney calls Nelson not only creative and genuine, but “the most influential teacher I’ve ever had.” Mahoney graduated from Tufts University and went on to earn a law degree; he even sang professionally for a while.
For the past 21 years he has performed with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which, among other things, sings choral pieces for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
He said he still finds inspiration in his teacher’s lessons.
“The thing she instilled, more than anything and which is so important in choral music, is working together,” Mahoney said. “You can have the most beautiful voice, but if you stand out it takes away from the group’s overall sound.
“I get a lot out of just the beauty of singing and creating this amazing art with other people. I enjoy the process of making music with others; that’s what I learned from Jean, the magic of making great choral music.”
Nelson is not easily lumped in with all the other teachers, Mahoney, an attorney in the Boston area, said.
Chris Coates, a Keene High student of Nelson’s, a four-year member of the school’s choir and a football player, agreed. Coates said he thinks often about the long-term good of his early-days singing experience, nurtured by Nelson.
“It was one of my most cherished times, being in her class,” Coates said. “She allowed me to develop this talent I had that I didn’t know. Any quality teacher has an ability to find the human side of what they’re doing, and to do what they do with compassion. I think Jean is a great example of that.”
Coates, the County Administrator and a longtime civic and community leader in the region, joined the Keene High a cappella choir as a freshman. He would earn All-State honors for three years, all New England for two.
“She encouraged us, she developed us, she pushed us,” Coates recalled. “I never thought I’d be at that level of singing. I’ll always remember her right before any concert, her big smile, pointing to her smile and telling all of us to remember to smile and enjoy the moment. She taught me that music could be more than anything I ever thought.
“To this day I have a warm, wonderful relationship with her.”
Nelson – and moreover, her students – are proof that education can be lifelong, John Ripley O’Brien suggested.
He first met Nelson, in 1971, he said, when he was a Keene High School sophomore and she was the accompanist for the school’s a cappella choir and mixed chorus. A year later, she continued her work as the a cappella choir accompanist, and was immediately promoted to vocal director of the mixed chorus.
From there, he noted, it’s a the-rest-is-history story.
“I am beholden to Mrs. Nelson, because she helped guide me on my way to accompanying local musical theatre that I continued to do for the next 40 years.
“She is an outstanding teacher, director, mentor and friend to countless students and colleagues.”
In 1973, Nelson became the director of the mixed chorus and the a cappella choir at the school —a role she maintained for more than 25 years. Later, she became the director of the drama club, producing notable classic musicals during her tenure. Even later, she became the director for the 100-voice Greater Keene Pops Choir, a position she held for 18 years before retiring from it in 2013.
Her final concert with the group comprised hand-picked selections from her more than 700 pieces of music; it was titled “A Musical Bouquet.” Nelson always felt, she said, it was important to “keep popular American music genres alive.”
During her career, she also directed the Chamber Singers Keene and accompanied Keene Lions Club shows.
“I always got a lot of joy from all aspects of music,” she says. “I played it all, and I loved it all.”
About the only thing she didn’t do, she pointed out, was perform as a jazz pianist, but her ability to sight read any kind of music was the secret of her range and versatility.
She said her good fortune was that she had a life filled with people and experiences “that were always feeding into my knowledge of music. A lot of it came naturally to me. I didn’t have to work that hard.”
But Mahoney maintained it was more than that, calling her a tireless worker and a person who gave freely of her time and energy – day and night, during hours and long after hours – to help others succeed.
“I remember what high standards she set,” Mahoney said. “We were singing pieces with Jean that were incredibly demanding – harmonically, linguistically, rhythmically. She commanded respect; at the same time, students wanted to perform their best for her.”
Nelson’s parents were both musicians, but her mom died just hours after delivering her, from childbirth complications. She was adopted at 6 months old. Her birth father was a professional saxophone player, and his career not conducive to raising an infant, she said. She never got to meet him, she said, though she could have. He died in his 80s.
Her adopted parents, Linnea and Scott Phelps, provided a good, music-filled life, Nelson said. The family lived in East Longmeadow, Mass., a cozy suburb of Springfield. From the time she was young, she was always exposed to piano lessons, she said, and attended top schools and conservatories while growing up and honing her talents. She had her first professional piano gig at age 14.
“I could play pretty much anything I heard,” she says.
She earned a scholarship to The Hartt School at the University of Hartford, where she studied piano and voice and earned her bachelor’s degree in music education.
She tells of accompanying one particular notable voice student at that time - Dionne Warwick.
Before coming to Keene, she taught music in Springfield, Mass., Hartford, Conn., Rochester, N.Y. and Durham.
She met Doug while singing at Westover Air Force Base. Doug was a singer, too, a member of the Eighth Air Force Band.
The couple found the way to Keene when Doug was offered a job at Keene State College. The two, married now for 53 years, became conductors of the New England Ambassadors of Music and escorted high school performers on concert tours throughout Europe from 1982 to 1993.
The Nelsons have two daughters, Sharon and Julie, and six grandchildren.
Nelson said she is humbled by attention and awards. She said she hopes others have found inspiration from her ways, and success because of “the quality of performance we always strived for.”
She confesses to no particular secrets, or special tips for a full and happy life.
She’s grateful, however, that that is just what she has had.
“As a teacher, I loved developing programs, introducing new courses, teaching music history, watching kids learn,” she said. “A lot of it was innate, I think. My personality was a big factor. I enjoy life, I enjoy kids and I like to inject humor. I think, over the years, my joy transferred to students; they felt it and they responded. Same with so many of the adult groups I taught and worked with.
“That I’m passionate about music will never change,” Nelson said. “It’s what I do. I’ve never regretted for one moment what I did with my career.
“What I’m not sure a lot of the people I’ve tried to help realize,” she added, “was how much I was getting back; how much they were motivating me.
“What they meant in my life.”