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Mr. Nickolas: Conducting 25 Years of Success

Sam Barlow High School
Paul Nickolas conducting Barlow band.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Barlow’s band director, Mr. Nickolas. This 2023-24 school year is his remarkable 25th year at Barlow. In 25 years, Mr. Nickolas has picked up wisdom, stories, and continues to have an admirable passion for his students’ success.

Mr. Nickolas didn’t grow up imagining he’d be a band director. He took a law class in high school and was so fascinated with it that he used to go to the county courthouse for fun. However, he had a love for music since a young age. Nickolas was a performance major in college but picked up camp counseling after his freshman year. During this time, he realized that being there for kids’ needs and having them depend on him was a concept Mr. Nickolas loved. Upon this realization, Nickolas concluded, “Wow, I love music, and I love working with kids, here we go–music education.” For three years, he taught in Illinois, then returned to school to earn his master’s degree in conducting. Despite having a certain soft spot for middle school students, Nickolas knew he “couldn’t live in a beginning band world.” He used the word “whew” to describe the chaotic noise of the middle school band. Therefore, Mr. Nickolas was in search of a high school job, preferably in the Pennsylvania or Ohio area, to be near family. However, this is clearly not where he ended up. 

Mr. Bolten, Nickolas’ former college professor and former Barlow band director, was conducting the all-state band in Oregon at the time. In need of a Barlow band director replacement, Bolten suggested Nickolas. The school paid for Mr. Nickolas’ first trip to Oregon. Despite it being summer, the band kids went to the school to meet Mr. Nickolas and play for him (he notes that the band sounded wonderful). The interview was conducted, and Nickolas was offered the job on the spot. Mr. Bolten showed him around Oregon, and the two enjoyed salmon at Multnomah Falls. Before his trip, Nickolas said, “I had no interest in moving to Oregon.” After the life-changing trip, he had a different perspective. “I was completely hooked.” And he never looked back.

There’s one fundamental rule that’s gotten Mr. Nickolas through decades at Barlow: “If you are in this profession and don’t enjoy working with kids, you’re not gonna last 25 years.” On crazy days when there are a million things happening at once, like the last few days with students hurrying to finish their final band projects, Mr. Nickolas has to return to his real purpose for teaching. “I love being a bit of a role model for them and seeing them grow.” All good things have their challenges; through 25 years, Nickolas has had his fair share. One big challenge was the greatly increased workload. He used to teach fewer classes, have an assistant band director, and other support that used to relieve some stress on Mr. Nickolas. Nowadays, with a heavier workload, it’s all about, “coming back to that number one, I don’t do it for all of that, it’s for the kids.”

If you’ve ever walked through the band hallway, you’ve probably seen the massive band wall of fame. All state groups are featured dating back to Barlow’s opening. 50-60 pictures from each decade are narrowed down from 1000 to be put on the wall. Mr. Nickolas calls it “an incredible treasure trove of history and memories.” When the wall was first put together, he took all his classes out there and let them fire away with questions pertaining to the wall. He was asked things from “Who’s that person?” to “Do you really have tattoos on your arms?” Through this Q&A, Mr. Nickolas was able to relive many fond memories. He verbalizes that, “I knew every kid’s name, I could tell a story about every picture out there.” Another memory Nickolas shared with me is still slightly panic-inducing–I saw it in his eyes. “I left a kid on Alcatraz island.” They retrieved the student quickly, but leaving a kid in one of the most notorious prisons in the world is quite a story. 

“Teaching for 25 years isn’t just about the greatest memory, it’s about the volume of memories.” Nickolas is tremendously grateful for Barlow and all the memories he has here. He truly believes that Barlow is a great place to be. He’s grateful for the staff and community that have always supported him. In fact, Mr. Nickolas loves Barlow so much that his family sold their house and moved so his kids (also talented musicians) could go to Barlow. “I always knew that they needed to be Bruins,” Nickolas conveys. Down the road, when Mr. Nickolas retires, he says his plans are to “find a bakery and just make donuts.” But for now, he continues to be the perfect band director for Barlow. Mr. Nickolas has changed an unimaginable number of kids’ lives throughout his outstanding 25 years at Barlow, stating “I believe in the staff, I believe in the community, and I believe in the students we have here.”


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About the Contributor
Hannah Stickney, Staff Writer

Hi, I’m Hannah and I’m a Junior. This is my third year in Journalism and my second year writing for the Banner. I’m doing the digital media program at CAL. I love reading and writing, Taylor Swift, the beach, and sunsets.

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