Music can heal, teach and improve lives.
This is especially true for Trevor Nicholas, a high school choral director in Chicago who received his Master of Arts in music education in 2020 from the Department of Music at the University of St. Thomas. He is a finalist for a 2022 Grammy Music Educator Award and earned praise from multi-Grammy award-winning cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
The nomination is a feat; Nicholas is one of 10 music teachers out of more than 1,135 national nominees in 49 states who was selected as a finalist by the Recording Academy and the Grammy Museum. The award recognizes teachers who have made a major and lasting contribution to music education and demonstrate a commitment to the discipline.
Where Nicholas stood out is with a collaborative project of music, video, song and dance that virtually brought together students, staff and alumni of Chicago’s Nicholas Senn High School when learning was remote due to the pandemic. The project also features gospel artist Trey McLaughlin, who was an adjunct professor at St. Thomas. Nicholas wrote and composed the original music and lyrics to “Who Will Carry Me?” He was also the pianist on the project.
Addressing trauma through music
Nicholas started teaching in Chicago Public Schools in 2012, first at Prosser Career Academy and then at Senn in 2016. He learned that teaching is tough and that it's a calling.
He recalled the day a staff member came to him before he entered the classroom on his first day. “Just so you know, nobody chose your class,” the person said. “The principal put a bunch of seniors who've already failed their arts credit [in this class].”
The obstacles became clear when the students came. One walked in and asked, “Is this chorus?” (mispronouncing it like “chore us.”) “Yes, this is chorus,” Nicholas told the student, who responded graphically with: “What the $%# is chorus?” Nicholas informed: “We sing.” The student retorted, “I'm not $%#ing singing.”
Nicholas thought, “Oh, my God. My goal here is to heal through music. And there are so many walls up here. What am I gonna do!?”
To get from the point of needing to cajole students to being nominated for a Grammy as a music teacher entailed Nicholas remembering why he wanted to teach in the first place.
Nicholas’ path from his small hometown of Cook, Minnesota, to the edge of earning a Grammy as a music teacher, reveals a calling.
As a child, he explored music improvisation in elementary school when chronic joint pain kept him from running around with other children. Nicholas, who spent most of his fifth grade year using a wheelchair, said, “Music became a companion.” That affinity extended into high school when he was experiencing depression in addition to his physical disability. “I found comfort and healing in improvisation.”
During his high school years, he showcased his talents beyond his living room. “We performed at nursing homes, special holiday occasions and local talent shows,” he said. “It brought people on an emotional journey, and they weren't exactly the same afterward. Meaning, maybe by entering into the music that came out of my story, they could see their stories? And there was some comfort of home, or some human connection?”
Before college, Nicholas said he thought, “Wouldn't it be cool if I could go to school to become a music teacher and help unlock the healing power of music for others?”
Once he became a teacher, he saw how vital that was. He said he realized that “my goal was to do something that would mean something to the students.”
So with the students, he created the “Who Will Carry Me?” project as a way to address trauma in their lives. “These were just supposed to be vocal warmups,” he said, but they turned it into a full song, and then a video appearance at the World's Fair in Dubai.
The video he produced was viewed over 100,000 times over all platforms. While toiling on this project, an email from Yo-Yo Ma arrived: “The song is beautiful, Trevor. Congrats to you and the students on this work.” Nicholas began this rapport by chance when he escorted Ma around the school building during a visit to the high school four years ago. Ma is listed under “Special Thanks” in the video credits.
The first St. Thomas finalist for the Music Educator Award
In addition to the video project, Nicholas has led student ensembles to premiere works at venues such as the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Chicago Symphony Center. He has partnered with arts organizations over the past decade to bring over $300,000 in grants, donations and free music lessons to his Chicago Public Schools students. He was honored as a Teacher of Excellence at the December 2020 Chicago Public Schools Board of Education meeting. He also advocates for more deep investments in school arts programs so that every student has access to a quality arts education.
“These projects, as you can imagine, took on a lot of bandwidth and brought me beyond the brink of burnout,” Nicholas said. “I put in too many hours, too much of myself.”
He had already spent the first few weeks of his newborn son's life working on the “Who Will Carry Me?” project. “I couldn't video edit for 120 hours on the next project.” A new dad, with a child on his stomach, “I realized I couldn't keep doing these projects. I had to rethink my life.”
Nicholas received support and encouragement from St. Thomas faculty. Music Professor Douglas Orzolek, associate chair of the Music Department and director of Graduate Programs in Music Education, said, “Trevor Nicholas is an amazing music teacher in Chicago. The video evidence of that student engagement was just as high as it could be. He’s done wonderful work with his students and we’re quite proud of him.”
Orzolek added that the Grammy nomination “is a pretty big deal! We’ve had others with St. Thomas connections make it to the quarterfinalist stage, but this is the first time we have had a connection to a finalist.” (Other Tommies who previously made it to the quarterfinalist stage included Orzolek and New Prague High School band director John Pohland, who received his undergraduate degree at St. Thomas in instrumental music education and trumpet performance.)
“Dr. Orzolek really influenced me,” said Nicholas, who also counts St. Thomas professors Karen Howard, Joshua Bauder and Angela Kasper Broeker among his mentors. “Dr. Karen Howard, project supervisor for my master’s degree project, gave me the research tools I needed to be accepted and celebrated by the scholars of this world. Before the master’s degree, I knew that the work was meaningful, but I didn't have the tools that came with that degree,” he said.
On being a contender for the Music Educator Award, Nicholas is humble. “This whole ride, since I tipped past being a quarterfinalist, I feel like an imposter because I know there are so many people doing incredible work.”
The winner of the Music Educator Award will receive a $10,000 personal honorarium and matching grant for their school’s music program. The nine additional finalists will receive a $1,000 honorarium and matching grants. The top winner will be flown to Las Vegas to attend the ceremony planned to be held at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 3, 2022. The event was postponed from January due to the pandemic.