Henry Nelson

Henry Nelson, a distinguished College of Music alumnus, has established an endowed scholarship for future music educators.

Henry Nelson

The East Lansing home where Henry and Phyllis Nelson raised their children and lived for decades is full of musical reminders. There’s the tuba in the living room – at the ready for rehearsal – and the flute, piccolo, and baritone saxophone in a back room. And there’s a stack of songbooks and vocal instruction manuals that Phyllis Nelson left after she died two years ago at age 85. 

Soon after Henry, 87, sits down to talk about his life the phone rings; a member of the seniors band he directs wants to confirm this week’s performance at a local retirement center. A lifetime of interesting experiences were “all through music,” Henry says, and he’s found a way to give back and to honor his late wife of 63 years.

The Henry M. and Phyllis J. Nelson Endowed Scholarship in Music Education will be given to undergraduate students in the Music Education area of Michigan State University’s College of Music. The goal is to annually fund two deserving students who participate in a College of Music ensemble, such as band, orchestra, or chorale.

The Nelsons both graduated from the music education program at then-Michigan State College in the 1940s and went on to distinguished teaching careers – she in vocal music, he in band. They were named Michigan teachers of the year in their fields in the same year, 1978. The university and its music education program remain near and dear to Henry’s heart and he’s especially mindful of helping students who may not have the financial means to pursue their love of teaching music to others. He remembers how hard he and his wife worked to get through school.

“Without sounding too altruistic,” says Henry, “if you can help someone, you do. We believe in higher education.”

Leaders in the College of Music say they were overwhelmed by the endowment.

"The MSU music education faculty and students are very grateful for the gift from of the Nelson family,” says Cynthia Taggart, professor of Music and chair of the Music Education program.

“This endowment makes it possible for us to acknowledge and provide support for the strongest music education students as they are nearing the completion of their degrees, when the financial stresses of paying for a university degree are most acute.”

Providing financial help is especially crucial for the students because music education is a five-year program, Taggart notes. The 160 undergraduates endured a rigorous admission process – including auditions – and must meet very high expectations in a jam-packed program.

Kevin Sedatole, a friend of Henry Nelson’s and a music professor, director of bands and chair of the College of Music’s Conducting Area, said the endowment reflects Nelson’s continued interest in his old program.  “He wants to make sure it’s in good hands and he wants to make sure it maintains its quality. It helps establish or continue the legacy of really strong music education at Michigan State,” Sedatole says. The key, he says, is to find the students that fit Henry’s mold.

 "You want the recipient to have the drive and determination that Henry obviously had his entire career,” Sedatole says.

 Nelson mentioned the endowment idea to Sedatole in the months after his wife died.

Henry and Phyllis – dubbed the “inseparables” in their high school yearbook in Manistee – met through music. Henry played flute and numerous other instruments, while his wife was a fine clarinetist.and pianist who attended the Interlochen Arts Camp as a teenager. They both chose to go to Michigan State, played in the school band (though Henry’s time was interrupted by military service) and decided to pursue music education.

Coming to MSC from a small town was “an eye opener, very, very much,” Henry says. His first performance with the band was at a road football game before tens of thousands at University of Michigan Stadium in 1940 (Michigan State lost).

Phyllis Nelson (left) spent many years as a vocal music teacher in Williamston and East Lansing schools, authored several books on music instruction, and conducted numerous clinics and workshops. Many of her music materials have been donated to East Lansing schools, which plans to dedicate the room of a library to her, Henry said. Like her husband, she also volunteered her time in spreading music to others. She was choir director for many years at Edgewood United Church in East Lansing and arranged and directed programs with the Lansing Matinee Musicale.

Henry Nelson has played (and continues to play) in bands and groups too numerous to count. He was band director at Perry and Haslett high schools, led a national championship Lansing VFW Band and was first president of the MSU Alumni Band. He judged at school band and orchestra festivals until he was 86. And he has traveled throughout the country and overseas for band events (he’s making a non-musical trip this summer to Italy with the Alumni Band).

Asked about the value of music in schools, Nelson tells the story of bumping into a former student, not uncommon for someone with such a long and storied career. He said he asked his old student, now a CPA, what she got out of playing with the school band.

“Without thinking, she said, ‘Discipline,’” says the proud teacher. “It gets them involved in the arts,” he says “An appreciation of music will be with them the rest of their life. That’s probably the most important thing.”

Students never forget being in the band, Nelson said, because of the relationships it builds. And in the days before high school sports dominated, it seems nearly everyone was in the band. Nelson recalls once having 150 of 450 Perry high schoolers as band students, one reason he’s so well-remembered.

“When you teach band in a little town, you cut a wide swath,” he says.

Nelson says the quality of music teachers today has improved immeasurably, thanks to better training at colleges such as Michigan State. That’s helped greatly boost the caliber of high school programs, he says.

Two of Nelson’s three children received band scholarships to MSU and two grandsons also played in the marching band.

He still practices his saxophone and flute at least a couple times a week, along with playing his other instruments, and regularly performs with one of various outfits. He had 13 shows in December alone. That’s in addition to reading three to five books a week and twice-a-week mile walks at Meridian Mall.

Chances are you’ll see him around playing with his Senior Class Band, the Strolling Spartans, who entertain at tailgate parties, a saxophone quartet, the East Lansing Kiwanis in the summer, and even the Scottville Clown Band, which operates during the summer near Ludington.

Music, Nelson says, “is the world’s greatest hobby. You can do it forever. … I can’t shoot baskets anymore but I can sure play the horn and entertain.”