Paul Shelden, Clarinetist and Classical Music Advocate, Dies at 79


This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Paul Shelden, a clarinetist whose wide-ranging career took him to Broadway, the White House and a stage shared with Leonard Bernstein, died on April 17 at his home in Hewlett, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 79.

The cause was complications of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, his son, Seth, said.

Not only a performer, Mr. Shelden was also a longtime teacher and administrator at Brooklyn College. And as an advocate for the accessibility of classical music, he worked to bring countless public school students to concerts in New York and founded the company Diplomatte Musical Instruments to offer affordably priced instruments.

Paul Melvin Shelden was born on March 8, 1941, in Brooklyn, to Victor and Reba Shelden. His father was a machinist and amateur boxer; his mother was a homemaker and customer services coordinator for a manufacturer of infant clothing.

As a child, Paul learned to play the clarinet while his identical twin, Aaron, studied the accordion. In 1956, the teenage brothers performed on the television show “The Original Amateur Hour,” hosted by Ted Mack.

Music brought Paul Shelden to the Juilliard School, where in the 1960s he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in clarinet performance and studied conducting, composition and saxophone. In the 1970s, he returned to school and received a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland in clarinet performance, literature and pedagogy.

As a player, Mr. Shelden had a varied career that straddled pop culture and Carnegie Hall. Among the conductors he worked with were Robert Shaw, James Levine and Bernstein — whose famous Young People’s Concerts inspired Mr. Shelden’s later efforts to bring music to children. But he also performed in Broadway pits and with well-known singers like Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney. He appeared with Guy Lombardo’s orchestra in its televised concerts on New Year’s Eve, and in the early 1970s took part in an informal show at the White House.

Mr. Shelden taught for 34 years at Brooklyn College’s music conservatory, while also holding administrative posts, directing the school’s wind ensemble and founding its clarinet quartet. He created Diplomatte in the early 2000s. The company partners with overseas suppliers to provide low-cost instruments to students and professionals.

In addition to his son, Mr. Shelden is survived by his wife, Pamela; his daughter, Loren Napoli; and two grandchildren.

He continued to play music even as he suffered from Parkinson’s disease in recent years. As a form of treatment, he also took up his father’s pastime: boxing.

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