Nelson Ronald Nolden was born in Dallas, Texas, on June 3, 1949. He was the middle child of three children of Frank and Lellah Nolden. Frank was a master aircraft mechanic and Lellah a homemaker and eventually an elementary teacher and taught English to people applying for citizenship. Frank became Chief Mechanic for Delta Crop Dusting Company (pre-curser of Delta Airlines), in Monroe, Louisiana. While in Monroe they lived on Bayou Desiard, where Nelson learned to swim, fish, and run a boat. He and his brother caught baby turtles using large strainers on the end of a long pole and sold them to the local “Five and Dime” store for ten cents apiece. The turtles were painted and sold as pets.
In 1960, Frank became an inspector with the Federal Aviation Agency, and they moved to Clinton, Mississippi, where Nelson began his musical career at Northside Elementary School. His parents bought him an Olds cornet. One night he dropped his cornet and jammed the mouthpiece. Although he told his father that his director said not to let our parents work on our instruments, his father, being a master mechanic, decided he could fix it and, of course, twisted off the lead pipe.
A year later they were transferred to New Orleans, Louisiana, where Nelson attended McDonald 28 Junior High School where he met his first mentor, Joseph Lafasso. Mr. Lafasso instilled in him the desire to become a musician. When asked to switch instruments, he volunteered to play french horn and then euphonium. Nelson attended Francis T. Nicholls High School under the direction of Joseph Lewis. Although Nicholls had one of the best band programs in the state, he felt that Mr. Lewis was egotistical, rude and treated students disrespectfully. Because of his high school band experience, Nelson decided to pursue music education as he was convinced that a great band program did not require sacrificing children.
While in New Orleans, Nelson took full advantage of the music offerings in the city where he heard artists such as Clarence Frog Man Henry, Pete Fountain, Fats Domino and others. His first professional gig was in the house band of a “strip joint” for a couple of weeks. While in New Orleans, Nelson met his best friend, whose mother was a Cajun. Their family introduced him to the world of saltwater fishing, shrimping, crabbing, and catching crawfish. He and his friend earned money catching and selling crabs and crawfish to the wholesale houses. He could back a boat trailer down the ramp and back before he could legally drive. He has lived on or near the water his entire life. He said he was born with one foot in the water and it still is. The day Janice was due to have their son, he was so nervous that Janice told him to get out, get in his boat, go fishing and leave her alone. So, being an obedient husband, he went fishing.
He attended William Carey Baptist College in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on a full scholarship for two years until the Baptists invited him to leave. While attending William Carey he played in a rock and roll, rhythm and blues band touring the southern gulf coast. In 1968, he and his band members went to see The Four Tops at an all African American nightclub as Mississippi was still segregated. He said, “We were immediately recognized, for some reason, and accepted by everyone. After all, it was “The Tops.” In 1979 he transferred to Sam Houston State University. There he was a senior assistant for Dr. Ralph Mills and studied under Dr. Fischer Tull. Nelson says, “Dr. Mills and all of the musical experiences at Sam Houston, gave me a foundation that prepared me to teach.”
After graduating from college in December of 1972, Nelson began his teaching career at Hardin ISD, a Class A school district, in Hardin, Texas. There he was the only musician in the district and, in addition to teaching band grades five through twelve, drove a morning bus route, and taught special education music to life skills students --with no training. There were only 200 students in the entire high school. He started with 32 students in the high school band grades seven through twelve. In his four years at Hardin, the band earned its first ever first division rating in anything and eventually the first sweepstakes. When he left Hardin, there were sixty-seven in high school band, grades nine through twelve, and 175 in grades six through twelve. On his first day of summer band, his first year to teach, he was going to “change the world” with his teaching. He asked his students, “What is the diaphragm”? His first chair clarinet, whose mother was the superintendent’s secretary, said shyly and seriously, “Isn’t that a contraceptive?” Later he asked if anyone knew who Johan Sebastian Bach was, and his first chair trumpet raised his hand and proudly answered, “Isn’t he the guy that makes mouthpieces and mutes?” Nelson went home that evening and became extremely ill. After having success in his first year, he felt that he had arrived. Then, the next school year Diane Baker went to Hull-Daisetta and Bobby Fife to West Hardin. Their immediate success gave Nelson and the band strong competition. However, they all became friends and helped each other succeed. This began a forty-two-year relationship with his best friend and "sister,” Diane Baker.
In January of 1977, he met his wife Janice while conducting a community theater musical, "The Music Man.” Janice was a dancer in the show, and when Nelson saw her on stage he knew she was the one! He told his best friend and sax player in the pit that he was going to get to know her. Janice attended Liberty High School and had Lowell Clark as her band director. She played bass clarinet, was a twirler, and then drum major.
When Nelson first started teaching, he was told a “tale” about a goose landing on the football field at halftime and following the band up and down the field. While dating Janice he learned that the story was true. It took place at the Liberty stadium, and Janice was the drum major. They married in July of 1977. They borrowed $1500.00 and moved to Orange, Texas, where he became assistant director of the Little Cypress-Mauriceville High School band and head director at Mauriceville Middle School. In 1979 he was named Director of Bands and in 1980, their son Nicholas was born. After graduating with honors from high school and with honors from Lamar University, Nicholas began his career as a performing musician and private instructor now in Austin, Texas. Nick has traveled the world playing music for Holland America Cruise Lines before settling in Austin.
While at Little Cypress – Mauriceville, Nelson, at age thirty-five, entered Lamar University to pursue his master’s degree where he studied with Dr. Jimmy Simmons, Dr. Wayne Dyess, and Dr. Barry Johnson. He received his Master of Music Education degree and then eventually his certification in school administration. In his first semester, he was asked by a young graduate student, "You don't have a master’s degree? If you don’t have a master’s degree, why are your bands so good?”
In his twenty-three years at LC-M, the band program grew from 90 to a peak of 240. Under his direction, the band earned twenty-three UIL Sweepstakes awards and advanced to state marching contest every time eligible except once. They consistently ranked in the top ten in Class 4A, in the state contest. The LC-M bands performed at several Houston Oiler football games, won numerous national contests, and performed for President Ronald Reagan when he came to Beaumont.
In 1989, the LCM band was named the TMEA 4A State Honor Band and performed at the 1990 convention. Nelson was so nervous, he still doesn’t remember much of that performance except for the smiles on his students’ faces as they enjoyed performing and a big hug from Scott Taylor, the TMEA band division vice president.
Before the state Honor Band concert, then president of TMEA Robert McElroy, who guest conducted on that concert, worked with the band on a slow, lyrical section of one piece. Robert asked the band to close their eyes and play without him conducting and to interpret the music the way they thought it should be played. The third time they played with eyes closed, the band sounded great. Robert turned to Nelson and said, “Just get out of their way and let them play.” Later Nelson asked the band who they would like to have as a guest conductor at the Honor Band concert and they unanimously said, “Robert McElroy.”
In 2000, Nelson left LC-M and moved to Highlands, Texas, to become the Director of Performing and Visual Arts, Foreign Language, and Communication Applications for the Goose Creek Consolidated I.S.D. in the Baytown and Highland area. He retired in 2009 after nine years of service to the schools and communities of Baytown. In 2013, he became executive secretary of Region X UIL Music.
Nelson is a member of TMEA, past member of TMEA state board, TBA, TMAA, TMAC, served on the state UIL Music Advisory Committee, Phi Beta Mu, Kappa Kappa Psi, and is a Phi Mu Alfa Honorary Lifetime Member. He says, “I was so honored to be inducted into Phi Mu Alfa by Dr. Jimmy Simmons and to have the fraternity’s brass choir perform a piece written by his son Nicholas. It was titled, “My Father, My Teacher, My Friend.” He was a member of the Little Cypress Lions Club for 23 years where he served in every office and was “Lion of the Year” three times. He is an active adjudicator, clinician, guest conductor, and is a presenter of staff development and trainings in Texas, and across the South. In 1990, Nelson received a letter of acclamation from then Governor Bill Clements for his service to the students of the LC-M School District and the citizens of Orange, Texas. In 1991 Mayor Dan Mohon presented him with the “Key to the City of Orange, Texas” and proclaimed September 16th, 1991, as “Nelson Nolden Day.” To celebrate “Nelson Nolden Day,” Nelson says you should drink adult beverages and eat bar-b-que, boiled crabs, and shrimp. In 1997 the 75th Texas Legislature presented Nelson with Resolution H.R 758 for his service as an educator in Texas Public Schools. He was inducted into the Little Cypress-Mauriceville School District’s Teacher Hall of Fame and honored at halftime in 2014. Nelson has taught or supervised in Class 1C, 2C, 3C, 1A, 4A, 5A and 6A. The creation of the 4A (now 5A) Texas All-State Band arose from an idea of Nelson’s and colleague Val Rose.
Nelson is extremely proud of all of his ex-students who span the globe. They include an international banker, Communications Director of The World Health Organization, numerous members of the military, including career military musicians, and many in the medical profession including a designer of heart valves. There are several members of law enforcement, a county judge, firefighters, engineers, professional musicians, classroom teachers, administrators, and a multitude of successful band directors. One of his proudest moments was attending a state marching contest as a spectator, where three of his ex-students had bands competing in Class 2A and 4A.
Nelson and Janice love traveling the United States in their RV every chance they get. They are both mentoring many of the young directors in Region X and across the state. He truly believes that teaching is why God put him on this earth and would do it all again, in a heartbeat. He feels so blessed and lucky to have been a band director in Texas and gives all of the credit to his mentors, students, parents, and staff. He says, “Being a Texas band director was the best job in the world. I loved going to work every day and having fun. As a teacher, I had a blast and got paid for it. After all, it is and always should be about the kids.”
Nelson is extremely honored to be inducted into the Texas Bandmasters Hall of Fame and says, “I can think of no greater honor.”