Eliesha Gabrielle Nelson

Formative Years

I was born and raised in North Pole, Alaska, where I began the violin at the age of six with the Suzuki Method, and piano at age 8. My first violin teacher Peggy Schwartz, was actually a cellist, but the Suzuki method was new in the interior of Alaska, and she was one of the few teachers for beginners. Mrs. Schwartz instilled a love of music and learning that began the journey towards a professional career in music. In Alaska, I also studied with Leslie Salisbury and Dr. Kathleen Butler-Hopkins. Although I do not play much piano anymore, my piano instructors Karen Johnson, Florence Bates, and Dr. James Johnson were incredibly important in my musical instruction. Mrs. Johnson emphasized the importance of practice, Mrs. Bates’ forte was self instruction, and Dr. Johnson instilled the importance of technique.

Leaving Home

At age twelve, my parents Ruth and Elisha Nelson, wanted me to take my practicing more seriously, and sent me to Indiana String Academy to be around other children my age who were more dedicated. That greatly impacted my attitude towards playing the violin. I had never been around so many other kids who played substantially better than I, and I began to practice. The next few summers, I attended Aspen and Eastern Music Festival. At EMF, the director of admissions Susan Black befriended me, and I confided in her my love of Alaska, but my even greater desire to participate in a musical precollege program. She suggested that I apply for the Young Artists Program at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Mrs. Black contacted Eleanor Holt, the director of the Preparatory department at CIM, and in about seven weeks I left Alaska for Cleveland, Ohio.

Severance Hall
Big, Scary Cleveland

Cleveland, the Big, Scary City

The move to Cleveland was quite a culture shock. I was always a shy kid who didn’t talk much to anyone, and suddenly at age 16 I lived on a college campus with young adults, and attended Hathaway Brown, a private girls school, in a city much larger and more diverse than North Pole. I think everyone was holding their breath to see if I would survive. I did—with the help of my violin teachers Linda Cerone, David Russell, and the occasional lesson with David Cerone. The education department of the Cleveland Orchestra was also very kind to me. I participated in the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestrafrom 1989-91, the last two years serving as concertmaster. I was also offered the incredible opportunity to solo with the Cleveland Orchestra in their education concerts, which remains one of my most thrilling musical experiences. I must add the importance of the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland Botanical Gardens, which helped keep me sane and provided an inspiring place to experience art and beauty, and do homework. During the summer I would go home to Alaska to visit my parents and older sister Elisa, who would return home from college. I also attended Encore School for Strings for more intense violin instruction from my teachers.

Higher Education

After graduation from Hathaway Brown, I decided to stay at the Cleveland Institute of Music for my bachelor’s of music. During that time I had more opportunities to solo with orchestras, such as the San Antonio Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Gateways Music Festival Symphony, Ohio Chamber Orchestra and the Cleveland Institute of Music Orchestra playing works such as the Brahms Violin Concerto, Beethoven Triple Concerto, Mozart Concerto No. 4, and Mozart Symphonie Concertante. I also discovered a love for playing chamber music which I pursued at music festivals such as Encore School for Strings and Sarasota Music Festival. After my Bachelors, I won a Fulbright Award to study with György Pauk in London, England at the Royal Academy of Music, where I received an artist diploma. In the meantime, my parents had moved from Alaska to San Antonio, Texas, and were wanting me to come closer to home. After the Fulbright, I spent a year at the University of Texas, Austin.

What Viola?

Up to now, there has been no mention of my playing viola because I never did. While in Texas, I began to dabble with the instrument, and in 1997, I returned to the Cleveland Institute of Music to pursue a master’s in viola performance studying with Robert Vernon. My colleagues were puzzled and my parents were furious—a new instrument, more schooling, was I ever going to get out into the world?

Severance Hall
Severance Hall, home of
the Cleveland Orchestra


I won a position in the Florida Philharmonic as acting principal viola for the 1999-2000 season. Florida was too hot for me, so I continued to take auditions. I won a position in the Detroit Symphony in March of 2000, and three weeks later the Cleveland Orchestra. I am currently a member of that institution.

What Now?

I am very lucky, blessed, and happy to have a position in one of the traditional “big five” orchestras. I don’t get to solo with orchestras often, although I had fun performing the Mozart Symphonie Concertante a few years ago with the local Cleveland Women’s Orchestra and the Lakeside Symphony Orchestra, and I had a little reunion in 2006 with the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra playing a short piece by Joseph Jongen. I love to play intimate chamber music house concerts and attend chamber music parties. In January 2007, I worked on my first recording project at Skywalker Sound Stage in California, which turned out to be the most thrilling, intense, and eye opening musical experience I’ve had in years. Technology and the use of splicing has improved to the point that so many recordings sound too perfect, dull, lifeless, and musically uninteresting. I thought my experience would be rigid and tiresome, but it turned out to be the exact opposite. I found it to be an honest reflection of my creative state in the moment of recording, and an indicator of where I can grow. Also, I am interested in recording quality music that has been neglected or lost, for whatever reason. The pieces that have been declared standard masterworks are not the only wonderful masterworks. The viola repertoire itself is much larger than most people give it credit, and violists do have more options than to continually perform violin and cello transcriptions. I hope I find music that other violists will also find compelling, and begin to expand beyond that which is considered standard and safe.

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