Spencer Bagley feels at home inside room 325, surrounded by an assortment of acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards, and what some might argue the most melodic instrument: the voice.

The 16-year-old Senn High School junior spent most of elementary school playing the clarinet in band, but found his way into Trevor Nicholas’ choir room when classes re-opened in the fall of 2021. 

The environment was welcoming, the conversations candid, and the community supportive — just the steady ground Spencer needed as he struggled with his mental health and gender identity. 

Nicholas’ empathetic approach guiding students through their own musical journey has made a difference for Spencer and other Senn students who are finding their voice after a tumultuous few years.

Like many educators, Nicholas believes in creating opportunities for his students beyond the four walls of his classroom. Whether it’s having his students perform at venues such as the Lyric Opera of Chicago or bringing in grants to launch new music programs on campus, he’s committed to his students. 

But he isn’t your typical choir teacher. Nicholas is nominated for 2023 Grammy Music Educator Award — his second year in a row as a finalist for the honor. The winner will be announced ahead of the 65th Grammy Award ceremony in Los Angeles on Feb. 5. 

The 37-year-old recalled being floored by the back-to-back nominations, describing the moment as “unreal.”  He’s humbled and grateful for the recognition and credits his current and former students who “committed themselves to the music and the project of making art.”

The nomination is “amazing,” Nicholas said. But even more amazing has been “watching the brilliance of these young humans as they cared for and kept moving forward, in what, I understand some of the hardest times in recent memory.”

For Spencer, the latest Grammy nomination just affirms Nicholas’ dedication to his students and his commitment to using music to change the world.

“This just really shows how amazing he is and how hard he works for us and how much he dedicates to us,” Spencer said.

How a Chicago educator uses music for healing

For more than a decade as a Chicago Public Schools teacher, Nicholas has used music as a conduit for healing — something that has become even more vital as students confront the mental health impacts of the pandemic and Chicago’s pervasive gun violence, which claimed the life of a Senn student in December.

Nicholas learned about the  power of music from personal experience, at a very young age. He was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and was confined to a wheelchair in the fifth grade. He found a companion in his piano — spending hours writing and composing in his room. 

When students switched to remote learning in 2020, Nicholas again found himself at his piano — composing songs to help his students navigate the overall uncertainty of the pandemic. Through a computer screen, he shared with his students his composition and some lyrics for “Who Will Carry Me?” — an original song responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-Blackness, and trying to process the trauma while in isolation that would later become a music video featuring his students.

“I found so much healing and peace at the piano, expressing myself through music,” Nicholas told Chalkbeat last year. “As a music teacher, it’s something I try to bring to my students, the healing power of music.” 

Senior Lilah Soyster recalls connecting to the lyrics when Nicholas first played an early draft for his class over Zoom as they sat separately in their homes. 

“Who will carry me

While I am alone

Who will hold me close and keep me bright”

In the next few months, the song evolved as the Chicago music teacher and his students collaborated virtually. The full weight of the project hit Lilah as she processed the turbulent period.  

“We were all kind of misty-eyed watching it premiere,” the 17-year-old said, recalling watching it online. “It was emotional.”

Nicholas and his students followed up with another song titled “The Cave” last spring.

Choir classes and Lilah’s involvement in the two song projects have helped her grow as an artist and a songwriter, she said. 

The program has not only taught her that there are many avenues she could pursue after high school, but also about building connections. 

“I learned a lot about what it means to be like a friend through being in an ensemble,” Lilah said. 

Spencer recalled being in awe at the artistry as he worked alongside his teacher, peers, and collaborators to complete “The Cave.” 

“It was so wonderful to watch,” he said. “We’re all having trauma at this time and we were all able to communicate with each other and sing together and grow together.”

Senn’s music program has allowed Spencer to grow artistically with the help of Nicholas and private voice lessons through the school’s partnership with ArtsSmart — a mentorship program that offers professional one-on-one voice lessons to students. 

“I always want to come to school to experience this class,” Spencer said. “It’s my favorite part of the day, and I really feel so grateful to be able to have this because a lot of people just don’t.”

The program also provided much more than music lessons. For years, Spencer has struggled with his gender identity, but found support from his father and Nicholas.

“He’s my favorite teacher ever,” Spencer said. “He gives 1,000% of everything to us every single day.” 

Teacher says Grammy nod is a testament to students

Grammy-nominated music teacher Trevor Nicholas guides his students through a recent rehearsal at Senn High School on Chicago’s Northwest Side. (Mauricio Peña / Chalkbeat)

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Nicholas stood at the front of room 325 and guided students through rehearsal, occasionally stopping to offer tips. The voices swelled in harmony, filling the choir room’s tall ceilings and cascading into a wall of sound. 

“You’re doing great everyone,” he told his students, using the keyboard to mark pitch as he sang in a falsetto.

Students sang the refrain from the Pentatonix song “Take Me Home”: “Oh, take me there. Won’t you take me there? Won’t you take me home?

“Did you like your last vowel, everyone? I saw some theatrics out there,” Nicholas observed before steering them through the final note.

They made another attempt. Harmonies melded together – smooth and effortless.

“Oh, that’s gorgeous!” he said excitedly. “You’re doing great. You sound really incredible.”

Trevor Nicholas’ choir class rehearses the Pentatonix song “Take Me Home” at Senn High School on Chicago’s North Side. (Mauricio Peña / Chalkbeat)

After last year’s Grammy nomination, Nicholas saw many more doors open for his students: more performance invitations, partnerships, and donations. 

This is not just his Grammy journey. It’s his students’ journey, too. They were “central” to these nominations — he only hopes they are also riding the same wave of excitement, he said.

“There’s untapped potential all around us,” Nicholas said. “So I hope that the school takes some chances on various dreams. It’s not like that there’s this magic thing that made this happen. There’s a lot of daily magic that we chose to enter in together.”

Win or lose, Nicholas’ message of music as a tool to get through life is already a victory. 

“If this is as far as we go with the Grammy nomination,” Nicholas said, “it’s enough.” 

His students agree. He’s already given them the best lesson any teacher could give: the confidence to believe in their dreams.

Trevor Nicholas raises his hands triumphantly after students finish rehearsing the 2015 Pentatonix song “Take Me Home.” (Mauricio Peña / Chalkbeat)

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at mpena@chalkbeat.org.