Ray Nelms McKelvain, 73, known as Nelms by those who loved him, died Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, at his home in Yucca Valley. He was born Dec. 11, 1949, to Ray and Dolphine McKelvain of Abilene, Texas.
He is survived by his beloved partner of 38 years, Howard Shangraw; his sister Ann Harrell and her husband John Lande, and children Alexandra Wirths and Matthew Harrell; and his partner’s sister Martha, brother Peter, and their children Keri, Todd, Bryon and Derrick; and their amazing dog Roddy.
Nelms’ musical talents were discovered at an early age, and he studied piano with Eva Mae Manly and Nancy Craig Lasley.
He attended Abilene High School and graduated in 1968. Nelms began his advanced musical studies and received his bachelor of music degree in piano performance from Oberlin Conservatory of Music where he studied piano with Betty Lasley. He received his master’s in music from the University of Texas, Austin, where he studied with John Perry.
After graduation, he relocated to Greenville, NC, to be associate professor of piano at East Carolina University. He then spent a year accompanying and coaching singers in New York City before moving west to pursue a wide variety of freelance musical activities in Los Angeles, including private teaching, chairing the piano faculty of the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, and accompanying and musical directing in the theater. He was assistant lecturer in piano at the University of Southern California while doing doctoral study in piano performance at USC and continued to study with Mr. Perry.
Nelms joined the music faculty of the Idyllwild Arts Academy in September 1989 and became music department chair in 1990. He was appointed dean of the arts in 1992 and served in that capacity for 16 years, returning to full-time teaching as an academy piano faculty member in the fall of 2007.
Many of his former students have gone on to continue their studies at prestigious institutions such as The Juilliard School, The Colburn School, Oberlin Conservatory, Boston Conservatory, Eastman School of Music, USC, UCLA and the San Francisco Conservatory, to name a few.
As an award-winning pianist, Nelms performed with L.A. Opera, Redlands Symphony, Idyllwild Master Chorale, Two’t Suite, Joshua Tree Philharmonic, several award-winning equity-waiver musical shows in and around Hollywood, and for organizations in Abilene, TX, Oberlin, OH, Austin, TX, Greenville, NC and New York City. He was musical director for many musicals at the Idyllwild Arts Academy, South Coast Repertory Theater and the Hi-Desert Cultural Center, including their Blak Box musical productions and their four award-winning Summer Youth musicals. His last performances were with the JT Early Music Society playing harpsichord for “Shakespeare in Music and Words” at the Hi-Desert Nature Museum and recording the music for Joshua Tree Summer Theater Under the Stars award-winning production of “Tonight at Spoon River.” Nelms had always loved collaborating with singers and was a much sought-after accompanist throughout his life.
Nelms had a love of teaching and he served as college counselor for Idyllwild Arts Academy and was founder and director of ARTS ED PLUS: College Counseling for the Next Generation. Nelms was the education director for the Hi-Desert Cultural Center’s acclaimed Arts/Tech Academy youth and adult arts programs. In September 2018, he became assistant director and pianist for the re-imagined Hi-Desert Master Chorus. He performed as the organist for many churches since his junior high and high school days and was currently the organist at the First Church of Christ, Scientist in Palm Desert.