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Grammy or no, teacher’s students know he’s a winner

David Colburn
Posted 1/20/22

COOK- As far as Cook native Trevor Nicholas is concerned, he’s already a big winner by being selected as one of ten finalists for the GRAMMY Music Educator of the Year award from among over …

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Grammy or no, teacher’s students know he’s a winner

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COOK- As far as Cook native Trevor Nicholas is concerned, he’s already a big winner by being selected as one of ten finalists for the GRAMMY Music Educator of the Year award from among over 1,100 nominees, and winning the award outright would just be icing on the cake.
But to a couple of his former students at Nicholas Senn High School in Chicago, Isabella Chamberland and Mia Mendoza, “Mr. Nicholas” is more than just a winner – he’s a life changer.
Both young women graduated this past spring after having Nicholas as their teacher for four years. When Nicholas came on board at Senn, he followed someone who left abruptly in a way that left a sour taste in the mouths of many. While locals know Nicholas as a caring and gregarious soul, not everyone at Senn immediately welcomed him with open arms.
“Our guards were up a lot of the time,” Mia said. “It definitely takes guts, especially dealing with kids from Chicago. It’s really hard for us to feel like we have this team-based dynamic – a lot of us were kind of off-put because we’re not used to those kinds of things. But Mr. Nicholas really made it clear to us that we’re a team and he carried that through all four years. He never gave up, even if students didn’t like him. I’ve seen him have his moments where he’s had some difficulties, but he never ever let it project onto his students.”
From starting out holding choir rehearsals in a history classroom, Nicholas quickly jumped into transforming the music program by focusing on what he wanted for his students. Bettering the physical space wasn’t nearly enough. His vision was to connect his students with some of the finest performers and leading music organizations in Chicago, and he did it, raising more than $300,000 along the way.
“Chicago is a place of huge opportunities, and Mr. Nicholas never failed to find them,” Mia said. “I came into the music program and I didn’t expect it to be like this. I didn’t expect it to have so many prestigious opportunities. He embodied the energy of what it felt like to be on those big stages, to be on the stage at the Lyric Opera, to perform at Wrigley Field. Those things were huge.”
But behind the big opportunities was a constant focus on both individual students and building a community.
“With Mr. Nicholas it was never just about grades or assignments or performances, or even just about the music,” Isabella said. “It was really about the arts community and making sure that everybody had a voice, in choir, or music theory, or whatever sort of group he was leading. He injected community into every single thing that we did. He’s a teacher who cares about the student voice more than anything else.”
That community perspective certainly rubbed off on Isabella, who took the initiative to create the Senn Music Journal, a publication composed by Senn Arts students as a different way to enhance community-building in the Senn Arts disciplines.
And little could be more threatening to a thriving community of choral singers than to be told they can’t gather together anymore, but that’s exactly what happened when the COVID pandemic forced Chicago schools into distance learning last school year. Separated in physical space, Nicholas brought them together in the virtual world with the “Who Will Carry Me?” project, a collaborative music video of song and dance for a song he composed to reassure his students in a time of immense stress and isolation.
Music is the canvas for all Nicholas has done with and for his students, his paintbrush the consistent, caring affirmation of their humanity, and his palette a willingness to share his humanity with them.
“He’s not just a music teacher, he’s a human being that just cares,” Isabella said. “He’s the community leader. He’s just like a light in the dark tunnel that is everything bad in the world.”
And for both Isabella and Mia, Nicholas has influenced how each now look at continuing on with their music.
Isabella said she entered the program convinced she did not want to do music after high school.
“After senior year I was like there’s no way I’m going to do a career that doesn’t have to do with music. It has to involve it in some form," she said.
That career could take forms as diverse as teaching, music psychology, or exploring cultural intersections with music, sociology and anthropology, she said, but music is the common thread.
For Mia, it was a transformation in her understanding of what being a musician is all about.
“When I came in, everybody in there had this idea of what a musician looked like,” she said. “Mr. Nicholas was able to bring us around so many different people that told us otherwise. Personally, the only way I thought I could be successful as a musician was to make a lot of money and become famous. Mr. Nicholas really made me realize that being a musician is nothing about that. It’s how much you really care about your music and put yourself in your music. I have ADHD, and I thought I wouldn’t be able to become a music teacher, I wouldn’t be able to become a professor, because that’s something that would get in my way. He kind of just put me in check and made me take a step back, and I was like I can do this because I’m watching him be insanely successful, but he’s still just a person in Chicago. You can still do those things without the grandiose ideas that seem unachievable.”
Some of those accolades are things Nicholas has undoubtedly already heard. During the nomination process, Nicholas and one of his students were guests on a podcast hosted by past award-winner Mickey Smith, Jr., who during the discussion made the comment, “Too often we give people flowers when they can’t smell them.” And then Nicholas received a fragrant verbal bouquet as the student  described for Smith and his listeners qualities that made Nicholas a special kind of teacher.
“Being told some of your impact on others’ lives when you’re still around to hear it is really rewarding,” Nicholas said. “I hope for and I wish for the other humans in my life to hear those things, because they exist for all of us.”
Winning the Music Educator of the Year award would carry a little personal reward of its own, Nicholas admitted, but that’s not why he entered the competition. He entered it for his students and for the program, hoping the visibility will bring even more attention and opportunities and funding to the Senn music program.
“My hope is that this will allow more young people around the city to either have the opportunity to come to our school because they didn’t know about us before, or to know that Chicago has performing arts programs that they would be eligible for,” Nicholas said. “My hope with this whole award, really, is to bring people more hope, and to bring more life and more excitement. I can already feel some of the winds hitting some sails of people around me and in my community, and it’s exciting.”

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