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Beyond the Office: Helvi McClelland has a passion for piano

Helvi McClelland plays a classical piece on the piano. Brian Orner

Reading Helvi McClelland’s resume, one has to be impressed with the education, training and successful mediation practice that summarize many years of her life. What isn’t as apparent from her work history is the passion she has for the piano, and the role music has played throughout her life.

A musical start

McClelland’s family, in Scotia, N.Y., had a piano; nothing fancy.

“Just a big, old, nondescript black upright with discolored keys,” McClelland said. “My mother could read music, and my father played a bit by ear. I started taking piano lessons when I was about six years old, but at age 12, I changed to a new teacher who had me go back to the basics.”

A bright student with plenty of self-discipline to practice, McClelland added violin lessons in fourth grade and continued piano and violin through high school. With music a strong influence in her development, McClelland enrolled in the Eastman School of Music for her initial college experience — encouraged by and following in the footsteps of the head of the music program in the Scotia-Glenville schools, Carl Steubing.

Once at Eastman, however, McClelland had a crisis of confidence in her gifts and abilities as a musician, so she left Eastman and earned a bachelor’s degree in social sciences from SUNY at Potsdam (where she was valedictorian).

After graduating from Potsdam, she returned to Rochester and began working in the Sibley Music Library of the Eastman School, first as a cataloger and then as head of the Sound Recordings Department, along the way obtaining a Master of Library Science degree from SUNY Geneseo. She also completed her piano performance bachelor’s degree at Eastman, with high distinction.

McClelland enjoyed her work at the Sibley Music Library. However, at age 31, she didn’t see herself in the job for another 30 years, and she got the notion to go to law school.

Legal career

Helvi McClelland

With a particular interest in public interest law, McClelland took the LSATs, earning scores that gave her the pick of law schools. She started classes at Yale Law School in 1978, completing her juris doctor degree in 1981.

She came back to Rochester as an associate at Goldstein Goldman Kessler & Underberg. After a couple of years, she accepted a position in a large firm in Boston, where she worked with a team of attorneys representing an asbestos products manufacturer in property damage cases. (Yes, this required sitting for a second bar exam since she had only practiced two years in New York.)

“I didn’t really like it,” McClelland said of her big firm experience. “I’m not really a big city person, and I missed the arts. I decided next to try arts administration, and after being rejected by numerous institutions that required a master’s degree in arts administration, I landed at Massachusetts Instituute of Technology as executive director of the Council for the Arts at MIT.”

After three years at MIT, McClelland wanted to return to Rochester. Having developed an interest in mediation during her years at Goldstein, Goldman, she took mediation training in California and Colorado and started her own practice in 1989. She’s been at 16 North Goodman St. since then, helping couples through separation and divorce, and assisting with some partnership disputes and family-owned business conflicts, in addition to other family and marital relationship matters.

“My practice has been very rewarding,” McClelland said. “This was a great way to use all of that training.” 

A time of change

After 23 years of mediation, McClelland has her sights on retirement this May.

“I want to have more time for the piano,” she admitted. “While in Boston, I did some performing and taught piano — a few children but mostly adults, tailoring their lessons to their specific goals.”

In fact, McClelland envisions taking on some adult piano students later in 2012, and wonders if perhaps “some lawyers who always wished they’d taken lessons or who regret not keeping up with the lessons they once had might become my students.”

Anyone interested can email McClelland ([email protected]).

Personal interests

McClelland reads a lot with a special interest in spiritual growth. This likely stems from a long-time affinity to the research of Rudolf Steiner, whose books and lectures are increasingly recognized as seminal thinking of the 20th century. Among Steiner’s many contributions are biodynamic farming and Waldorf Schools, an arts-based approach to education and human development.

In addition, Steiner developed eurythmy as a new form of expression. Eurythmy combines movement with speech, music and spiritual quality. The human body is the instrument of expression and the practice of eurythmy is a tool to strengthen the capacities of will and to enliven the soul.

For many years, McClelland has been the pianist for Grasshopper Productions, a eurythmy group based in Copake (near Hudson) that has toured the Midwest and Northeast performing in Waldorf Schools and other venues.

Current performances

In fact, McClelland rarely plays solo. Her piano performances are generally in conjunction with other musicians or artists. She was set to perform a program of Bach and Brahms on Sunday with bassoonist Matthew Shubin at the Stillwood Study Center in Palmyra.

In May, McClelland and fellow pianist Robert Kerner will give a two-piano recital at the Stillwood Study Center, with works of Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Franck and Brahms.

“I look forward, finally, to having the time and freedom really to concentrate on music from a mature adult perspective, not having to cram practicing into the small spaces of full-time personal life,” McClelland confessed.

What’s in a name

Helvi is a more common name in Finland than in Rochester, and in recent years, McClelland became more and more curious about her roots. Spending three weeks in Finland in 2005, McClelland was inspired to learn to speak Finnish and to explore the villages and people from whence her maternal grandparents came.

In 2006, McClelland participated in a one-week intensive Finnish language camp in Duluth. She met a young woman from Finland, Anna Leppänen, who now lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and who, via Skype, has been her instructor in weekly Finnish lessons for nearly five years.

“I’m probably about where someone would be after two years of college level language,” she said. “It’s a very difficult language, and, as my Finnish friends say, nearly useless as well, given that only five million people speak it.”

McClelland and her life companion, Charles Roemer, are heading back to Finland later this year. Roemer, a school social worker and stone carver, looks forward to another trip to Finland where they will stay with Helvi’s newly found relatives and friends made during their last trip.

“In 2010, Charlie taught me about couchsurfing.org — an Internet-based service that helps match up travelers with willing hosts throughout the world,” McClelland said. “We met and stayed with one couple in Kuopio, Finland, in 2010 who have since visited the U.S. and also stayed with us.”

If playing a musical instrument and learning a new language help to keep the mind young, McClelland should enjoy a long and fruitful retirement.