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KSC's Music Man Takes His Final Bow
Doug Nelson retires after a career of more than 35 years

How many people are blessed enough to discover their life's passion at 10 years old? If most of us realized our childhood dreams, we'd be a society overrun with ballerinas, cowboys, and superheroes. Doug Nelson is the exception. Call it fate. Call it divine intervention. Call it lucky…lucky that Nelson discovered his passion for music at the tender age of 10.

When Nelson was a boy growing up in Groveton, N.H., he told his parents that he'd like to play an instrument, and, as always, they were supportive. While his parents appreciated music, they were not musicians; they were farmers. It was their son who brought music into the family's home.

Nelson's first instrument was the baritone horn. He loved playing and he loved performing. By the time he was 11, he was the youngest member of the Lancaster Town Band, playing right beside a 75-year-old, the band's oldest member.

As Nelson matured, he was influenced by two role models – his baseball and basketball coach and math teacher Richard Moulton, and his big brother Phil. Nelson recalls, "Mr. Moulton had a tremendously positive impact on me. He was a great teacher on and off the field, but Phil was my hero. There wasn't anything he couldn't do. He was an artist, an athlete, and a talented musician. I wanted to be just like him."

It's debatable as to whether he measured up to Phil in athletics or art, but there's little doubt which sibling excelled musically. Nelson's talent and dedication have led him on a lifelong journey that includes performing, conducting, teaching, traveling, and living and loving music.

To measure Nelson's own positive impact on others, look through the eyes and hearts of those who have been inspired by him. "Doug Nelson saved my musical life in 1971," says David Bresnahan, a respected music teacher for 31 years and band director at Memorial High School in Manchester, N.H. "My first year at Plymouth State had been very discouraging. I debated whether to continue as a music education major or leave school. Fortunately, Professor Nelson [serving as an adjunct at Plymouth] became my applied lesson instructor in my second year, and, in a short time, he reintroduced me to the joy of making music. My playing greatly improved and, most importantly, my passion for music was rekindled.

Doug Nelson photo by Fred Gaylor "Doug's teaching and mentoring skills were so effective that I've carried them with me ever since. I've had a very successful career as a music educator and spent my life trying to measure up to the standards he set. He's a major influence on me and ultimately on the many students I've had the opportunity to teach."

Heidi (Blish) Ort '96 was one of those students. Now a music teacher herself, at Hillsboro-Deering High School in Hillsboro, N.H., she recalls her first experience with Nelson, as a 17-year-old baritone horn player with the Explorers Wind Symphony in Manchester, N.H. "Mr. Nelson was a guest soloist," she says, "and I vividly remember standing outside of his dressing room as he warmed up on his euphonium. I peeked through the door and listened to the most beautiful sounds I had ever heard come from this instrument. I felt like some rock band groupie hanging out waiting for the superstar. 

"Not long after that, I was trying to decide what to do after graduation. I went to my high school band director and mentor, David Bresnahan, for guidance. I wanted to be an English teacher but still wanted to be in concert band and in a chorus. He said point blank, 'Go to Keene State. Doug's in Keene.' I said, 'I don't want to teach music, I want to teach English.' But I knew Mr. Bresnahan had tremendous respect for Professor Nelson and had studied under him, so I went to Keene. I joined the band and within weeks I made the switch to music major. I studied euphonium until he suggested I switch to French horn. He was right. He knows things about people before they know themselves. He has an uncanny ability to see the future in people."

'My first teacher made me thirsty,' Nelson explains, 'and that's what I want for my students… a thirst for music.' Nelson keeps tabs on his students, even long after graduation. Denise Lacaillade '82 knows this firsthand. "Two years ago, I was at a N.H. Band Directors Association all-member meeting. When it was time to nominate people for president, Doug stood and nominated me. I was shocked! He made it possible for me to be the first woman president of the NHBDA."

The cycle continues. "Doug Nelson has shaped the lives of countless students – directly and indirectly," KSC music department colleague Joe Darby says. "When one reflects on the number of KSC alums who are teaching and making music across the U.S. and elsewhere, you have to take into account that he's had an impact on their students – so the numbers are quite overwhelming. It's an impressive achievement. Doug's steady and devoted leadership in the music department is a major reason why it's a vital educational and cultural resource for our region."

"I'm personally beholden to Doug," says Keene Mayor Michael Blastos. "Not only has he been part of some of our finest community performances, he's been an outstanding educator and role model to my children, especially Sophia [Santerre '84], who went to Keene State and is now teaching music in Nashua. Doug has a special charisma that makes you stand up, take notice, and listen."

Beyond the Keene State campus, Nelson has also made a major impact. For example, one of the most celebrated holiday events in the Monadnock area is the Tuba Christmas, which he started 16 years ago. The annual concert has been growing in popularity and has successfully replaced the tuba's stereotypical oom-pah-pah image with one of melodious grace.

Doug Nelson photo by Fred Gaylo This is reflective of Nelson's personal taste. He likes all types of music, but especially symphonic music ­– orchestral or for wind bands. What he values most is melody, structure, energy, originality, and passion, regardless of genre. The same goes for composers. "To identify a few would be nearly impossible and not representative of a long list of people whose music I admire," he says. "At my final concert with the KSC Concert Band we'll play some of my favorites – music of William Schuman, Norman Dello Joio, and Carl Orff's Carmina Burana."

It's interesting that Nelson selected Orff, a German composer who believed that every person has music inside and that, if nurtured properly, it would come out. As Nelson sees it, his primary objective is to make his students strive to achieve their full potential, regardless of what level that may be. His motivation is traced directly back to his childhood teacher Mr. Moulton. "My first teacher made me thirsty," Nelson explains, "and that's what I want for my students… a thirst for music. Over the years, I've made a habit of continuously asking myself if my teaching objectives are reasonable and practical. Then I set out trying to motivate each student to want what I know they'll need to be successful, particularly as music teachers."

Nelson has enabled so many to surpass their expectations and achieve their dreams. And it's all because he loves teaching people to teach music. When reflecting back on his proudest moment at Keene State, Nelson doesn't cite his personal triumph of being named KSC's Distinguished Teacher in 1999 or receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award, presented this April by the New England College Band Association. Instead, he immediately focuses on the music department, saying, "I think my biggest achievement was helping the Keene State music department become accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music back in 1990. This is a very prestigious organization, and we felt confident that we had a strong music program that would meet the organization's criteria. But, more important, if we were wrong, we would need to make the changes necessary to meet their high standards and our own."

While constantly reaching for the next level, Nelson has enabled so many to surpass their expectations and achieve their dreams. And it's all because he loves teaching people to teach music.

During his 35-year teaching adventure, Nelson has learned a thing or two himself. "My students have challenged me to separate the wheat from the chaff," he says. "That is, there's just not enough time to spend on unimportant things. I have a responsibility to my students to know the difference, even if they might not recognize those differences until much later in their lives."

Lorie Rogers is a freelance writer who lives in Keene.