To Paul Shelden of Hewlett, music offered a metaphor for life.
The accomplished musician who arranged, conducted, taught and published widely while performing for many thousands of fans over a 64-year career — including on Broadway and at the White House — said navigating life’s rhythm is a lot like playing an instrument.
“If you are too focused on the beat you are playing, that beat is immediately gone — you are no longer in the moment and you’re late,” his son, Seth Shelden of Manhattan, recalls as one of his father’s aphorisms. “You must always train your attention on the beat immediately in front of you.”
This motto, his son said, may express the harmony of a measure-by-measure philosophy that Shelden had achieved and practiced in his life long before the Brooklyn native became one of thousands of New Yorkers to die of COVID-19 this month.
He was 79 when he died on April 17, at home.
“Everyone was drawn to him as someone full of goodness,” Seth Shelden said. “And although he never boasted about his accomplishments, had you heard him perform, you would have realized his unique greatness also.”
Indeed, Shelden had amassed an impressive body of work. The woodwind expert played Classical, opera, jazz, and klezmer in the world’s most prestigious venues — Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Broadway and even the White House — and with giants of entertainment: Bob Hope, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett, James Levine, Robert Shaw and Leonard Bernstein.
He was a professor emeritus of music at Brooklyn College, where he had served as assistant director of the school’s Conservatory of Music. For decades, he produced and conducted concerts that brought Classical music to hundreds of thousands of Brooklyn public school students
His journey into rarefied realms of the music world began in Borough Park, where he and his identical twin brother, Aaron, now of Manhattan, started studying music at the recommendation of their father, Victor Shelden, a machinist and amateur boxer. Their mother, the former Reba Shapinsky, was a housewife.
By age 10, the twins had taken up music, Paul on the clarinet and Aaron on the accordion, Seth Shelden said, adding that their interest soared after they appeared on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour.
Paul Shelden attended public schools in his primary and intermediate grades and graduated from New Utrecht High School to attend The Juilliard School, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in clarinet performance, minoring in conducting, composing and saxophone. In 1978, he earned a doctorate in music in clarinet performance, literature, and pedagogy from the University of Maryland.
Shelden’s academic work focused on the clarinet, but he also mastered saxophone and flute.
In his performing career, he was something of a prodigy, becoming the youngest band director in the Catskill Mountain resorts. It was there that he met his wife, Pamela Shelden, who sang in the band.
He was married for 51 years to the lifelong educator who spent most of her career teaching at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan.
The Sheldens settled in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn and had two children, Seth, and Loren Napoli, now of White Plains. The family moved to Hewlett after 16 years in Canarsie and stayed on Long Island for 28 years.
Throughout his life, Loren Napoli said, Paul Shelden showed generosity, sensitivity and humor — and he was the first to say he was wrong and concede a point even as a musical perfectionist. He refused to get angry over small things — even if they were not so small.
It could be that he was focused on the “beat immediately in front” of him rather than the unfortunate event that had already occurred.
“He was so resourceful and devoted to finding solutions,” his wife, Pamela, said. “In our early days, when we were so poor, we splurged on an anniversary gift for my parents — a small statue of a violinist. One day the statue's violin bow broke off, and I was distraught, but Paul just set about patiently figuring out how to mend it. He shaved down a matchstick, painted it the exact color, and glued it on. It looked just like the original bow, and no one could tell that it had even been broken.”
After decades of performing, Paul Shelden founded his own musical instrument company, Diplomatte Musical Instruments, a firm where he oversaw the design and manufacture of woodwind instruments made in China.
He had battled Parkinson’s disease but sought a unique therapeutic approach to it in the Rock Steady Boxing program at the New York Institute of Technology, hearkening back to his father, who was an amateur boxer.
Besides his wife, son, daughter and brother, Paul Shelden is survived by a son-in-law, Rocco Napoli of White Plains; two grandchildren and several cousins, nieces and nephews.
A graveside funeral was held on April 21 at New Montefiore Cemetery in West Babylon, New York.
Donations in his honor may be sent to either Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music or Rock Steady Boxing at the New York Institute of Technology.