Teachers possess the ability to provoke a chain reaction in their student’s lives, a ripple-effect that branches out, touching far more than those in their classrooms. There is no more apt example of this than Rend Lake College graduate and current Pinckneyville Community High School Choral Director and Assistant Director of Bands, Amber Nichols.
Nichols grew up in Enfield and attended Norris City-Omaha-Enfield High School (NCOE). Her passion for music connected her to NCOE band director Keith Shasteen, an instructor who provided one of the first ripples in helping Nichols to get where she is today.
In 2006, Shasteen introduced Nichols to RLC educators Sara Alstat, Music Associate Professor, and Tracey Webb, Theatre Professor. Though Nichols was a high school sophomore at the time, she was given the opportunity to play piano at the collegiate level.
While trying to plan for the future, Nichols explored numerous degree options to pursue in college. She thought about majoring in Graphic Design because of the work she did with her high school yearbook. She also considered Music Business as a more practical path to stay in a field she loved. Yet, it was the impact and relationship with instructors that helped her choose her path, leading to a degree in Music Education.
“I always knew I wanted to give back to this community and stay in this area. I’ve heard that the average student changes their major seven times. Once I started Rend Lake, I never changed once. Perhaps that was due to the support and encouragement of the amazing faculty,” Nichols explained.
“It was a school that had been so willing to support me; I felt very welcomed. My parents were hesitant at my degree choice at the beginning, only because of the stereotype of music being a ‘useless’ major, but they have been very supportive my entire life and supported me through college. I never doubted my choice because I didn’t want to do anything else. This is my passion.”
Nichols spent her time at RLC studying Aural Skills, Music Theory, Music Literature and other necessary classes needed to transition into a four-year university. She obtained her Associate in Arts degree in May 2010 and transferred to SIU, passing the music placement test with flying colors.
Staying true to her plan, Nichols decided to make ripples of her own, staying in Southern Illinois to enrich the lives of students and fighting to keep the arts alive in local schools.
“My high school had a difficult time of transition when they lost two seasoned music teachers due to retirement. Although we had great teachers follow in their footsteps, the music program never fully bounced back. Retention rates were down, resources were limited and enthusiasm about the program was lacking,” she said.
“I decided I wanted to be a music educator in Southern Illinois to help programs that were like mine. I want to bring enthusiasm and respect for music education programs into the classroom and community. I want students to know and feel that they can be accomplished musicians in Southern Illinois. There are bountiful opportunities for musicians in this area, and I want to help students seize those opportunities, just as Mr. Shasteen, Sara and Tracey helped me in 2006.”
It hasn’t been an easy road. Nichols began her teaching career at Benton Grade School but lost the job due to a reduction in force.
“I thought it was the worst thing that could have ever happened to me. The saying, ‘everything happens for a reason,’ doesn’t ring any truer than my situation two years ago,” she said.
Now, she has found a home in Pinckneyville. She teaches at the high school as well as the junior high, leading choir at all grade levels and co-teaching band and leading band lessons, working to make a difference in the lives of young musicians just like her high school and college teachers did for her.
“Pinckneyville has been the most welcoming community that I could have landed in. The community, administrators, teachers and students have been so kind and supportive. The program is well supported by everyone and the students are hardworking and eager to learn,” Nichols expressed.
Not content with just making a difference in her own student’s lives, Nichols offers some advice for Rend Lake College students.
“Be in charge of your degree. All students should get a degree catalog and know exactly what classes they need to graduate. Don’t make that the guidance counselors’ job. It’s yours. Go to your classes and don’t slack off. I have had principals and superintendents bring up grades in interviews. Get involved and be social. Make the most of your time at college. It really does go by so fast.”
And for the prospective musicians:
“You can make a career out of music. It’s hard work, but if you have determination, willingness and confidence, you can make it. Try to get as involved as you can in the music community as early as you can. It’s about who you know, and the more people you are introduced to, the more opportunities you will have.”
Rend Lake College’s Music Program offers two degrees, an Associate of Fine Arts in Music Performance (Vocal) and an Associate of Fine Arts in Music Performance (Instrumental). For more information about the program and its degree options, contact Alstat at 618-437-5321, ext. 1817 or visit the college’s website, www.rlc.edu, and search “Music.”