WINDHAM — Richard Nickerson loves talking about his students and their accomplishments. He’s less comfortable talking about himself. “The whole Grammy thing,” as he calls it, makes him fidgety.

“I don’t have a problem when the attention is on the kids,” he said, “but I am uneasy when the attention is on me.”

Nickerson, who teaches chorus at Windham High School, is one of 10 national finalists for the music educator Grammy Award, which will be announced in advance of the Grammy Awards TV broadcast Feb. 12. The award, conferred by the Recording Academy and the Grammy Foundation, recognizes music teachers, public or private, elementary through college, who have contributed to their field and demonstrated a commitment to music in the schools. It comes with a $10,000 prize.

Nickerson, 53, has been teaching at Windham for 30 years. Around school and around town, where people know him as “Dr. Nick,” the Grammy nomination affirms Nickerson’s stature as a leader and role model. And much to his discomfort, it also brings unusual attention to a Maine educator whose choruses have performed at Carnegie Hall and the White House and whose students have sung on Broadway and in national touring musicals.

Since he became a finalist in early December, Nickerson has been the subject of numerous feature stories and interviews. In a growing bedroom community known more for its proximity to Portland than any defining community characteristic, Nickerson and his prize-winning singers are a source of pride and identity.

“He brings what I like to call vibrant energy to the building,” said Thomas Noonan, who teaches English at Windham. “His students feed off of it, and it informs the whole school and the community. We’re all very happy for him.”


Nickerson directs three choirs, including the Windham Chamber Singers, a prestigious touring ensemble of high school singers. He also teaches guitar, music theory and a class about the music industry. The industry class covers “every job except the performers on the stage,” Nickerson said, including the math behind what to charge for a ticket and the economic science of hosting and promoting concerts.


Nickerson began the Windham Chamber Singers during his second year in Windham. He wanted to create a vocal ensemble with high standards for singers who sought challenges beyond the school chorus and annual musical. In 1996 the Windham Chamber Singers won the Prize of Vienna at the International Youth and Music Festival in Vienna, Austria, one of the highest honors in international youth festival competition. After their long flight home, Nickerson and his kids arrived in Windham to fireworks and a cheering crowd of 1,000 people. They were treated like sports heroes, and have been ever since.

“Windham has grown a lot, but prior to that point, Windham had a hard time defining what it was. We didn’t have a downtown. We have Sebago Lake, but we share it with other communities. We’re close to Portland, but we’re not Portland,” Nickerson said. “Winning in Vienna was the culmination of community pride and community effort.”

Singing in the chamber singers is prestigious, said 16-year-old Libby McBride, vice president of the 40-person, auditioned ensemble.

“Growing up in Windham, it was always a goal to get into the chamber singers,” she said. “It’s such a huge thing and such a great honor. Everyone wants to be in the chamber singers.”


Many of the members highlight their experience on their resumes, and Nickerson is a go-to reference for students seeking jobs and admission to college.

Robyn Hurder, who grew up in Windham and makes her living as a singer and performer in New York, said her experience with the Windham Chamber Singers set her on her path. “All the way through high school, my eyesight was set on New York. I want to go to Broadway,” she said, attributing her goals to Nickerson’s high standards. “He was amazing.”

Elisabeth Marshall, who lives in Portland and stars in the current “Magic of Christmas” concert by the Portland Symphony Orchestra, was part of the group that won in Vienna. She worked as assistant conductor of the chamber singers as a senior and was the inaugural recipient of the Richard Nickerson Scholarship when she graduated in 1997. She teaches at the University of Southern Maine and as a private voice instructor.

Nickerson demonstrated confidence in her as a singer and rewarded her with responsibilities, she said. “Rick Nickerson gave me my start, you could say, as he gave me opportunity to sing wonderful solos, including the soprano solo in Beethoven’s ‘Choral Fantasy,’ which we sang in the competition in Vienna,” she said.

Seventeen-year-old Celine Baker, the ensemble’s president, said the news of Dr. Nick’s Grammy nomination was shocking at first.

“You never think of your conductor being a finalist for such a huge national award,” she said. “But then you think about it, and you realize Dr. Nick deserves this. If anyone should win, he should. He puts so much into making us who we are. He pushes students to do their best and to strive for greatness.”


A former student, Janelle LoSciuto of Westbrook, said Nickerson helps students achieve great things because he inspires them to believe in themselves. LoSciuto, who graduated from high school in 2002, works as a private voice teacher in Westbrook, which is something she likely never would have done without Nickerson’s encouragement.

“Only now can I look back at what Dr. Nickerson and the chamber singers did for me as a person and as a musician. Dr. Nickerson inspires his students to achieve greatness and, in turn, those students are role models for young aspiring singers,” she said. “I see it now with my own voice students. They attend a chamber singers concert and they want to know how to get there. Practice, I tell them. Dr. Nickerson is the beginning of a chain reaction that inspires hard work, excellence and an appreciation for the power of music. His example led me to pursue a career in music.”

Nickerson is treating the Grammy nomination as a group effort. It’s not about him. If he could, he would bring his students with him to Los Angeles to accept the award if he wins. He doesn’t know when he will find out if he’s won, but he assumes it will be early enough to arrange travel – and to find a sub.

“I truly believe this nomination is every bit about my students as anything,” he said. “Everything we do and whatever success we’ve had is because of the students.”


In addition to his work in Windham, for eight years Nickerson conducted the Magic of Christmas Chorus for the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s annual holiday show at Merrill Auditorium. Those duties ended in 2014. Nickerson brought much of his “Magic” experience to the holiday show in Windham, “An American Family Holiday,” held at the 900-seat school auditorium the first Saturday in December. Nickerson also spent eight years, from 2001 to 2008, as artistic director of the Boy Singers of Maine.


The Grammy nomination is his latest national recognition. He was a quarter-finalist for the music educator Grammy in 2013, and in 2009 Choral Director Magazine named him one of 10 Choral Directors of Note in the United States. His teaching honors include Maine Music Educator of the Year, Maine Distinguished Choral Director of the Year and runner-up for Maine Teacher of the Year.

His greatest honor, he said, is a scholarship in his name, established in 1997, awarded each year to a Windham High School graduate who plans to make choral music a part of college. The scholarship is funded by an alumni concert each January.

The Grammy Foundation and Recording Academy established the music educator Grammy four years ago. It received thousands of nominations each year, said Scott Goldman, vice president of the Grammy Foundation. The nominations pass through three phases of screenings. “The fact that Richard has achieved a place among the 10 finalists is a testament to his talent, his dedication and his commitment to music education,” Goldman said.

Nickerson grew up in Houlton and earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Maine and his doctorate from the University of Missouri Conservatory of Music in Kansas City. He was born in Newcastle on the Miramichi River in northeastern New Brunswick. The town has since been renamed Miramichi City. For their annual spring tour, the chamber singers are going to New Brunswick and will sing in Miramichi.

It will very much be a homecoming for Nickerson, whose mother was a strong influence in his life. Music was a big part of her life, though she worked as a nurse. She instilled a love of singing in Nickerson. Like his mother, who died three years ago on Christmas Day, Nickerson has retained his Canadian citizenship.

“I have a lot of family still living there and try to visit at least once a year,” he said. “I have very fond memories of summers and school vacations spent with cousins during my formative years.”


He loved growing up in a small town. Houlton offered him the chance to pursue what he loved, because Houlton supports its youth, he said. He’s helped create the same environment in Windham.

Students who join the Windham Chamber Singers sign a contract that requires them to maintain good grades and be good citizens. They are held to higher standards than their peers, academically and otherwise. The reward for their behavior is the prestige of being involved in something that’s important to the community.

No matter what his students do with their lives, Nickerson is unwavering in one piece of advice: “Keep connected to your hometown and those you are close with.”

Nickerson, who lives in Windham and raised his family here, has had opportunities to leave. The chance to achieve something bigger and in the music industry has tempted him. Whether he wins, the Grammy nomination proves that the best decision he made was the one that kept him in Windham.

“One of the foundations of our program is community, or what we call an ensemble in music,” he said. “It’s all about establishing roots.”


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