NJ Starz: Todd Nichols (Hometown: Denville)

Photo credit: Jolesch Photography

By Steve Sears

Todd Nichols recalled his earliest love for music. 

He said, “It was in the seventh grade. I can actually remember that in the yearbook for Thomas Jefferson Middle School, they asked you for an ambition.” Nichols’ entry? To someday become a professional musician. “I was a drummer, played professionally for 25 years while I taught high school. My dream as a little kid was to be the drummer for the Count Basie Orchestra.”

He never attained that “dream,” but he accomplished something much more important. For himself, yes, but most importantly, for others.

“I’ve been very, very blessed to have some incredible students,” Nichols said. “And I would say some of the most memorable ones, the ones that truly resonated, were some of my students for whom maybe going to school was challenging for them. They would come back after they graduated and said that it was being in band, being in music, and being in these ensembles that helped get them through and make it to graduation. Those to me were always the ones that really hit home.”

Nichals since 2019 has been the Rutgers University Director of Bands, and now oversees the entire program for concert ensembles, the marching band, and three prep bands. Nichols is also in year two of his Presidency of the Big Ten Band Directors Assocation. His term runs through 2024.

The 47-year-old Nichols, who was born in Denville and grew up in Rockaway, attended Morris Hills High School. He was raised by his mom, Sandy, who passed away a few years ago, and his dad, Tom, also a Morris Hills alum. He has one younger sister, Tracey.

Nichols, who graduated Morris Hills High School in 1994, credits his high school band director, Mchael Sopko, with giving him encouragement. “He was my high school band director, and he was very supportive and very encouraging. And not just to me. It is interesting that there are a lot of musicians who came out of Morris Hills High School who are doing just really incredible things. There are people who are out on Broadway, there are musical directors, there are college band directors, there are people teaching and playing professionally. Such a small, tiny school in  Rockaway had quite a few incredible artists come out and do different things. And he (Sopko) was super encouraging to me my whole time through.”

After high school, Nichols headed to what was then called Trenton State College (now called the College of New Jersey) where he received his BM in Music in 1998, and thereafter his MM in Conducting from Pennsylvania’s Messiah College. While he has been teaching at Rutgers University, he received in 2022 his DMA in Conducting from the Mason Gross School of the Arts.

Nichols’ first teaching roles were at Edison High School from 1998 to 2004, and Roxbury High School from 2004 to 2017. 

Nichols said, “Both communities are still to this day very special to me for different reasons. The Edison band and the Edison community was a place that was very serious about what they did, wanting to progress, and grow and get better. It was a great place to start teaching, a great place to be able to build something – a program full of really special, hardworking and caring people. Roxbury was very much the same way. The time spent at Roxbury was about trying to create opportunities for the students that maybe had not existed prior. There were a lot of first-time national performances for those bands and experiences that I will certainly never forget. At Edison, it was me and just a couple of colleagues, and when I was at Roxbury, there were seven of us who were working towards that common goal. It was just another community that really believed in music, really believed in what we were doing.”

Through the years, the bands that Nichols has directed have performed for some very prestigious folks and at worthy locations. In 2008, the Roxbury band was the first band ever to perform at the prestigious Midwest Band & Orchestra Clinic, and to date they are the only high school from New Jersey that has ever performed at the conference. The Roxbury High School Wind Symphony has been on stage at both Avery Fisher Hall and Carnegie Hall in New York City and took part in 2014’s Super Bowl XLVIII halftime show. And Nichols, conductor of both the Eastern Wind Symphony and Garden State Symphonic Band, in 2016 was elected to the American Bandmasters Association/American School Band Directors Association, and was also invited to conduct the United States Army Field Band.

“That was pretty great,” he said of the latter experience. “That was while I was teaching at Roxbury when they came into town, and Colonel (Tim) Holtan was kind enough to extend an invitation and ask if I wanted to do a piece with the group. That was very, very special.”

Nichols moved on in 2017 to Rutgers, and when he started there, he was the Director of Athletic Bands and the Associate Director of Bands while teaching at the school. His Marching Scarlet Knights have performed for former Vice-President (and current President), Joseph Biden, and during halftime on Monday Night Football.

And next up just might be the crème de la crème: an appearance in this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Nichols said, “It’s a very exciting time for us right now. In addition to the fact that this is the first time in our school’s history that the Rutgers Marching Band has ever been accepted to march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, we have had some really great interest in the band program in that we are the largest we have ever been. We are going to be taking 350 students to this parade, and we are trying to make sure that the impression that is made and the experience that is created for our students is, ‘You’re going to get one shot at this for it to be a lifetime memory for those involved.’ The students are super excited about it, and our staff is super excited about it. We are doing everything we can to really make sure that we represent our university the best we possibly can.”

As special as a music and teaching career is for Todd Nichols, it is superseded by his love for his family. He and his wife, Beth, will in May 2024 be married for 25 years, and they are proud parents of two daughters. Nichols said, “Sarah, who is a freshman now at Rutgers, is a Cognitive Science and Linguistics major. She wants to be a Speech and Language Pathologist, and our youngest daughter, Emily, is a sophomore at Immaculata high school. Anytime I am able to have time with my family is the most important thing. It gets tougher as we get older, and everybody is terribly busy. But to me, any time that I could have with my girls and my wife is the most important time I can have. It always makes me happy, no matter what.”

And there are those he has educated in the past, and the ones he teaches now. As far as his career and love of music goes, Nichols’ reward for his hard work is experiencing the reactions and happiness of his students.

“When they achieve a goal that they thought they maybe could not, makes me happy that they are happier than anything else.”


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