When it came to music, Steven Sharp Nelson's father had only one requirement: His children had to learn to play instruments that were invented before 1800.
"So I started the violin at age 7," said Nelson, "but I quickly learned it was not my instrument."
One day his father brought home a cello. Young Steven sat down and played the theme from "Jaws." And he knew he had found his place. "I loved the cello. I felt so connected to it. I just didn't realize how deep it would run."
That connection has led Nelson to a secondary career as a cello player, doing studio and stage work with a variety of local musicians. He has been recorded on more than 100 local CDs and has recently released a disc of his own, "Sacred Cello," highlighting the versatility and sound of his instrument.
He could probably make a living as a musician, "but I choose not to. I want music to be an escape, not a vocation. I play with a lot of full-time musicians, and they have a wonderful life. But for me, I wanted to have a career in addition to music."
And so, even though he has a degree in music from the University of Utah, he currently works in real-estate development, something that allows him a flexible schedule for recording.
Nelson and his wife, Julie, have a 15-month-old son. "My favorite thing to do is spend time with them." If he has one bit of advice for would-be musicians, it's this: "Find a wife like Julie. Only wives of musicians understand what wives of musicians must go through. She gives me so much support. She's my inspiration, and every musician needs inspiration."
Nelson's also interested in graphic design. "And I love a good movie."
So, music is not his life, but it is a true passion. And for that, he gives a lot of credit to his mother. "My father's gift was the intellectual understanding of music as well as the determination. He never gave up on me and he never allowed me to give up. Without him, I would not be playing the cello.
"Of course, we did get into some terminology debates. What he called incentive, I called threats," he jokes. "There's a stage for most children when they want to quit; when they'd rather be out playing with their friends. But he kept me going."
His mother, on the other hand, had been a professional opera singer. "She had an ineffable passion for music. She lived music, and music lived vicariously through her. You can't teach passion in a conventional way. It has to be demonstrated and emulated. She showed me that good music can often do more good for people than hands can. She used it to lift others and bless others. Her gift to me was that passion."
It's a passion that comes through on his CD, which features a selection of music ranging from classical to folk to new age to inspirational. "I called it 'Sacred Cello,' and that's not a word I use tritely. It has to do with the influence that music has on the soul. Music can take such transcendent shape. These are all melodies I'm deeply attached to, and I feel strongly that the best thing to do with music is share it. That's what I try to do here. I try to present it in an accessible format."
He is joined in that endeavor by a number of local musicians, including Paul Cardall, Peter Breinholt, Jon Schmidt and Marshall McDonald. "I've been fortunate to have a lot of mentors. A lot of what I do is what they have given me. So I couldn't do this without them."
Cardall produced the CD for his Stone Angel Music label. And Nelson credits Breinholt as his "discoverer," although, "I know providence was in there somehow. It was too fortunate to be coincidental."
He initially met Breinholt "by happenstance. A while later he handed me a CD and asked if I could put cello to it. At the time, it seemed kind of odd to add cello to folk music, but now it's become a mainstay."
And while Nelson's favorite genre may be classical music, "I always think of what Bobby McFerrin said that if you only listen to one kind of music, it's like living in one room. I love folk cello. I love jazz cello. I love pop cello. And when I come back to classical, it's more alive because of all that."
The cello, he says, is the instrument most like the human voice. "It can reach the depth of sorrow. Then it can be happy. It can growl and then sing like an angel. It is so much fun to play."
In addition to his parents, Nelson lists his three main musical influences as Yo-Yo Ma, Bobby McFerrin and Victor Borge. "My dream is to one day be a Victor Borge. I love the way he is able to use a spoonful of laughter to make people fall in love with classical music."
There is a place for somber music, Nelson says, "but there are also times when it should not be taken too seriously, just as we shouldn't take ourselves too seriously. We need appropriate balance."