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From Cook to Chicago, with love

Teacher uses music to heal trauma

David Colburn
Posted 12/16/20

COOK- Within adversity, seeds of hope and triumph can be found, brought to full bloom with the right measures of encouragement and love.Cook native Trevor Nicholas knows this from both sides of the …

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From Cook to Chicago, with love

Teacher uses music to heal trauma


COOK- Within adversity, seeds of hope and triumph can be found, brought to full bloom with the right measures of encouragement and love.
Cook native Trevor Nicholas knows this from both sides of the equation, as he has recently used his own experiences with adversity and triumph to inspire a unique creative endeavor that has brought comfort, healing, and community to the students of a large Chicago-area high school.
Trevor, a 2004 Cook High School graduate, is the choir director for a specialized four-year music program at Nicholas Senn High School on the North Side of Chicago. Using an original composition he wrote, titled “Who Will Carry Me?” students and teachers in music and dance joined with alumni and guest artists last spring to individually record parts at a distance for a collaborative video that counters the trauma of a COVID-scarred year with comfort and hope.
What the thousands of people who have viewed the video don’t know is that the seeds of this achievement were sown in the days of Trevor’s youth in a tiny northern Minnesota town barely one-third the size of Senn High School.
Trevor first encountered adversity as a grade schooler when he developed rheumatoid arthritis, an affliction that left him in a wheelchair for a short time and set the stage for him to turn his interests from sports to music. He credits his school music teacher,Bailey Conger, and piano teacher Carol Johnston for nurturing his development and setting examples that he incorporates into his own teaching.
“I started piano lessons, actually, with Bailey Conger for two years, right when I was very young, and then I transferred over to Carol Johnston,” Trevor said. “To be able to teach K through 12 is such an incredibly demanding job that pulls you in so many different ways, and I watched (Conger) just work tirelessly for her students over all those years. She was my music teacher for 13 years.”
Johnston’s influence went well beyond keyboard skills, as she encouraged Trevor’s interest in creating original compositions.
“Carol is just one of the kindest, most caring people I’ve ever met,” Trevor said. “To have that as a model was incredible and continues to impact me as I work with my students.”
Trevor became more active as he moved into high school and his arthritis was brought under control, but playing and creating music remained essential, and he discovered his playing was therapeutic not only for himself but for others. After graduating in 2004, he headed off to North Park University in Chicago with the idea that, maybe, he could use his music professionally to help others.
It wasn’t long after Trevor left town that he would encounter a very different type of adversity through tragic events that shook the Cook community to its core.
Just months after graduating together, Trevor’s classmate Patrick Wilenius died in a car accident. Just seven months later, in July 2005, another horrific car accident claimed the lives of classmates Lindi Fogelberg and Dan Swanson, Lindi’s mother, Nancy, and Swanson’s girlfriend, Paige Bergman, a 2005 Cook graduate.
“It was like the heart was kind of ripped out of our class,” Trevor said.
The collective community pain of those losses was still there in 2007 when Megan Anderson, a graduate with the Cook class of 2005, was slain while at work in Eveleth.
Trevor’s voice still chokes up when he talks about losing his friends and classmates, but the friendships and the tragedy have made him better able to handle the challenges he’s faced teaching students who often experience equally traumatic events.
He recalled the night when Lindi was honored for eclipsing 2,000 points in basketball. Lindi was a local star, while Trevor wasn’t part of the “in crowd.” On her way out of the building she stopped, turned to Trevor, and invited him to come over to her house to celebrate.
“It struck me in the gut,” Trevor said. “She’s in the midst of the biggest achievement of her life so far, and she’s inviting others into it that haven’t been considered being ‘in.’ before. That’s cool. And then she passed away. But that’s always stuck with me, to invite others in.”
When Trevor graduated from North Park with a music education degree in 2008, his mentor, Dr. Rollo Dilworth, helped him land a job teaching elementary music, choir and orchestra in Skokie, Ill., filling in for teachers who were on leave. A librarian tipped him off to a job in the Chicago Public Schools system at Prosser Career Academy High School, “and I followed that lead and ended up teaching in high school and elementary school, a split position.”
It was a rough start.
“I didn’t even have a piano, a computer, or speakers,” Trevor said. “I only had three out of 151 students that even knew they were going to be in choir.”
He got the equipment in part thanks to a $15,000 grant to partner with Orbert Davis and the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic to take students on a unique musical exploration of the “great migration” of African-Americans to the Chicago area.
And out of that project came one of Trevor’s first projects that addressed the trauma some of his students encountered, a rap called “Forced to Listen.”
“The girl who was kind of the head of writing the lyrics to the rap had lost her best friend, who she called her brother, to gun violence,” Trevor said. “Now two years ago, she lost her boyfriend to gun violence.”
Trevor managed to transition into teaching just high schoolers, but he only had them as students for a year, not enough time to build either the trust or skills he wanted for his students in his work, and after four years, he just walked away.
“I had a mentor come and watch me teach and she pulled me aside and she said, ‘I think your time here is done,’” Trevor said. “You have such a heart to give through this occupation, but you need to be able to give freely and have people in front of you who are willing to receive and work with you freely.”
Trevor didn’t know where he would go next, but late that summer while in Sweden with his wife, Renee, he got a call from a principal at Senn. They had a position and they wanted to interview him. He went to a friend’s house there to do a long-distance interview via Skype. He got the job.
“I knew I’d be walking into hard stories again, and I was ready for that,” Trevor said. “I didn’t realize that the whole music team had turned over that summer and the students were bitter and hurt. Their music teachers had left and betrayed them, and there were some really hurt students who didn’t want to trust me.”
But, while conducting a 51-voice choir that had to cram into a small history classroom with desks for rehearsals, Trevor began to build that trust, and also to raise money for materials and renovations. After four years he’d built an award-winning choral program, a new dedicated practice room was a reality, and he was on the way toward raising about $250,000. Somewhat accustomed by now to the ups and downs and trials and tribulations of life in a diverse school where three-fourths of the students were socially and economically disadvantaged, Trevor looked forward to getting the 2019-20 school year off to a good start. His hopes were dashed before the year began.
“One of our theater teachers in this four-year program was arrested for extreme sexual abuse of a student in the program,” Trevor said. “Two weeks later, one of our students committed suicide. Then we went through a historic two-week teacher strike. Then one of our junior student’s brothers died suddenly in a car accident. And then one of our PE teachers was let go for some racist remarks to some students and a student protest happened.”
Trevor was working on a master’s degree, and his project topic, “Responding to Trauma Through Vocal Music Composition,” was more timely and needed than he anticipated. Throughout the fall and into the spring he wrote various short pieces for his choirs to sing in warm-ups that had inspirational lyrics and uplifting melodies and harmonies – You’re Enough, Don’t Look Down, Stormy Roots, The Cave.
But when the COVID-10 pandemic hit and Chicago Public Schools shut down classes and switched to distance learning, “Who Will Carry Me?” came to the fore for Trevor. He saw the effects of social isolation on students attuned to performing as one. He heard and felt the intense stories of students and families affected by the virus, including one student who lost his brother, mother, and father to COVID-19 in the span of just a few days.
“It was obvious from the start that it was going to hit black and brown communities harder,” Trevor said. “I said to my student teacher that we’re going to have opportunities to respond. And I knew, based on the things that I experienced growing up in my hometown, and then in college, that we could either sit in a place of ‘oh, my goodness, this is all happening’ or we could immediately start looking for ways to make a difference.”
As Trevor looked at how “Who Will Carry Me?” could factor in, the idea of creating a virtual performance not only excited his students but lit the fire to bring more people into the project. All Senn Arts divisions were invited to participate in some way, and a dance choreographed for the song became integral to the project.
“It ended up, we invited everybody in,” Trevor said, echoing a lesson he learned many, many years before.
The project exceeded everyone’s expectations, including Trevor’s.
“By the time we had created this, this giant hug of a project for ourselves, it really stood up to the litmus test of a professional piece of art that could stand next to anything else that we saw,” he said. “At that point, there weren’t any projects like it that had both dancers, singers and musicians all virtually combined.”
But the most important goal, bringing together and affirming his students in one of the most difficult and trying times of their lives, was achieved as well.
One of Trevor’s students, Mia Mendoza, a vocalist and recipient of a Chicago Rising Star music award, expressed a common sentiment in the October edition of the Senn Music Journal:
“I couldn’t describe the feeling of satisfaction it brings,” she wrote. “It was shocking to me to see how many people had participated, and quite frankly, the song was straight heat. One of (Trevor’s) unique ideas, as one may say, has proven to strengthen our community and make artists and our peers feel the unity we felt in person. I have never been happier to be a part of something so great.”
The video has garnered widespread attention on YouTube and Facebook, as well as among professional artists and state politicians. While Trevor enjoys reporting the latest number of views to his students, he’s also excited about their collaborative effort is leading to more opportunities for building community and touching others in the Senn community through music, including his compositions.
And to think that it all began in Cook.
You can view “Who Will Carry Me” online at


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