Longer Bio

David Nelson grew up in a home filled with music. He learned trumpet and singing from his parents, both excellent amateur musicians, and also studied piano, guitar and electric bass. He performed frequently: in church, in school, and as a member of the Minneapolis Youth Symphony.

As a junior at Kalamazoo College, well known for its Foreign Study program, he had the opportunity to spend a year in Madurai, South India under the auspices of the Great Lakes Colleges Association. There, at Sri Sathguru Sangeetha Vidyalaya, the music college affiliated with Madurai University, he began the study of Karnatak music that would become his life’s work. He learned mrdangam from Sri C. S. Sankarasivam and vocal music from Sri S. Ramanathan, who was the principal of the college.


After his return to the United States he graduated from Kalamazoo College in 1972 with a B.A. in Religion; his thesis included a vocal performance of Karnatak songs. On the advice of Sri Sankarasivam, he went to Middletown, Connecticut, where Sri Ramanathan was teaching Karnatak music at Wesleyan University along with Ramnad Sri V. Raghavan, who had learned mrdangam from his brother, Ramnad V. Easwaran, a student of Sankarasivam. He learned from Messrs. Ramanathan and Raghavan until the summer of 1972, when he began his studies with the artists who would be his principal mentors, Sri T. Ranganathan and Sri T. Viswanathan.


Messrs. Viswanathan and Ranganathan, who were on the music faculty at California Institute of the Arts, were teaching in a summer program sponsored by the American Society for Eastern Arts at the University of Washington, Seattle. The Indian music and dance faculty at the ASEA summer program also included their sister, the renowned dancer T. Balasaraswati, and Viswanathan’s best-known student, Jon B. Higgins. There, Nelson learned mrdangam with Ranganathan and singing with Viswanathan and Higgins before deciding to concentrate on his mrdangam studies. He enrolled at CalArts and earned his M.F.A. in music in 1975.

Viswanathan and Ranganathan moved to Wesleyan University in 1975; David followed two years later and was accepted into Wesleyan’s Ph.D. program in Ethnomusicology. While at Wesleyan, Nelson continued his apprenticeship with T. Ranganathan and served as his teaching assistant for three years. His work with Ranganathan included advanced work in accompaniment, solo playing, and the accompaniment of bharata natyam, South Indian classical dance. He also studied jazz drumming under Ed Blackwell.

After finishing his course work and qualifying exams, David spent several years performing and freelance teaching. In addition to his ongoing work with Ranganathan, he continued his jazz studies with Kenwood Dennard and Ed Soph.

Ranganathan fell ill in 1986, and David served as Visiting Artist at Wesleyan in his place. The following year he went to Chennai, India, as a Junior Fellow of the American Institute for Indian Studies to do field work for his dissertation, which he completed in 1991.

After earning his Ph.D. he performed extensively, most often as accompanist to renowned flautist and singer T. Viswanathan, including concert tours in Europe, China, and Ireland. In addition to Viswanathan, he has accompanied the late D.K. Jayaraman, the late Jon Higgins, Nookala Chinnasatyanarayana, Smt. Ranganayaki Rajagopalan. Sri T.V. Gopalakrishnan, Sri N. Ramani, Smt. N. Kiranavali, Dr. K.S. Subramanian, Sri P. Unnikrishnan, Sri Neyvalli R. Santhanagopalan and many other artists, including his present colleague at Wesleyan, B. Balasubrahmaniyan.  As a bharata natyam accompanist he has performed with T. Balasaraswati’s late daughter Lakshmi Knight, her son Aniruddha Knight, and Wesleyan colleague Hari Krishnan, to name a few.

In January 2000 David was named Visiting Artist at Wesleyan University. The following year he became Artist-in-Residence, and in 2013 was promoted to Adjunct Assistant Professor of Music, the position he currently holds. He teaches South Indian Percussion (Music 433), Solkattu (Music 212), and, with colleague B.Balasubrahmaniyan, Introduction to South Indian Music (Music 110). He also teaches Music 463, Teaching Music to Children in local schools, a Service-Learning course in which Wesleyan students are trained to give music lessons to local children in after-school programs.

Nelson maintains a busy performing schedule in addition to his teaching responsibilities. He has also written extensively on the subject of Karnatak drumming. His dissertation, Mrdangam Mind: the tani avartanam in Karnatak Music, is in demand among percussionists and other musicians across a spectrum of traditions. He also contributed a major article, Karnatak Tala, to the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. His first book, Solkattu Manual: an introduction to the rhythmic language of South Inidan Music (2008, Wesleyan University Press), is in its second printing, and his second book, Konnakkol Manual: and advanced course in solkattu, is to be published in the spring of 2019.  His article “Three Generations, Three Directions,” appears in vol. 42 of The Journal of the Indian Musicological Society (2018-2019). In 2013 he was honored with the title “Kala Seva Mani” by the Cleveland Tyagaraja Festival, and in 2016 received the “Padmashree Palghat Raghu Memorial Award” for excellence in mṛdaṅgam from the Neelakanta Sivan Cultural Academy in Chennai. He is sought after for guest lectures, master classes and residencies. He has done residencies at Harvard University, Kalamazoo College and Point Loma Nazarene University, and guest teaching at many colleges and universities, including Amherst College, New England Conservatory, Berklee College of Music, Yale University, Smith College, Brown University, Columbia University, and Dartmouth College. He has also performed and taught internationally, at University College, Cork, Ireland, at the Central Conservatory of Music, Beijing, and at the Shanghai Conservatory.