MACHIAS, Maine — Behold Gene Nichols: Today he is wearing canary yellow socks, a Peruvian jacket and a dress shirt that is red on one side and blue on the other.
His long white hair has escaped its ponytail and is sort of swirling in surprise around his head, and his oversized glasses dwarf his face as he sits in his music classroom at the University of Maine at Machias — a space that is part playground, part symphony hall, part band shell and wholly wacky.
Mobiles made of CDs and 45 rpm records hang from the ceiling, turning gently alongside hundreds of ties and a giraffe made of chicken wire. Rows of bowling shoes decorate the shelves above thousands of vinyl music albums. Instruments are everywhere, from traditional to totally unconventional: olive oil cans, a bedpan, a grand piano turned on its side, laundry tubs, hollowed logs, washboards.
This is Nichols’ sanctuary where, for the past 25 years, he has been teaching great musicianship — classes in theory and listening, specialty classes in American music of the 20th century, musical theater and private instrument lessons.
But at 57, Nichols also could be found wearing a mustard-colored suit leading the Machias Fourth of July parade while playing “You Are My Sunshine” on 25 bicycle horns — the kind with the big black bulbs that circus seals play.
Or he could be writing the complicated technical symphony program notes for the Machias Bay Area chamber concerts.
He could be leading an intensive class in the music of Bob Dylan or teaching the hurdy-gurdy or playing a jarring melody on hubcaps, or working on a concerto for the saw — the kind you cut wood with. (He has a special log already selected and waiting at the back of his classroom.)
He could be in an oversized orange suit coat and teal pants, leading the UMM Ukulele Band at a local sock hop while admonishing that “ukulele” is pronounced oo-koo-lay-lee.
Music is Nichols’ life. He is addicted, consumed and enraptured.
“Start with the world itself and listen to that,” Nichols advised. “Listening is the key to life. The world of sound is where you start, for me.”
For Nichols, it could be rain on leaves, the beat of hammers at a nearby construction site, wind along coastal rocks, or the hiss of truck tires on wet pavement.
“I am addicted to sound, all sound,” Nichols said. “That’s what gets me to thinking about everything as music.”
He takes a three-ring binder and opens and shuts the clasps to a peppy beat. He shakes the small cage that holds the numbered beads to a bingo game, finding another rhythm.
“If you are as attentive of life as you should be, there are lots of things happening every day for all senses,” Nichols said.
He hopes to impart openness and gracefulness to his students. “I try to think in relaxing terms,” he said. “I’m just somebody who enjoys working in music every day.”
Nichols was born into music. His grandmother, as Little Laura Blakeslee, was part of a family minstrel act in upstate New York, and as Nichols grew up, her piano playing and musicianship enveloped him.
As a child, he once found an abandoned ukulele in his parents’ attic and taught himself to play by feel. The uke had no strings, but it had a booklet.
“I practiced and practiced and learned it without the strings,” he said. “Then when I finally got strings, I was ready to go.”
And he never stopped. On to music college he went, earning two master’s degrees and gaining experience playing the euphonium, a baritone horn, and performing in an old-time medicine show, ragtime bands, rock, jazz and blues bands, even performing with The Beatty Band, a circus band, for three years. Along the way, he met his wife, Lynn, who is an orchestral violinist. In 1985, he saw a listing for a music teacher sought by UMM under the heading “miscellaneous.”
“I knew it was for me,” he said. “Here there is the air, the water, nice folks and enough musically for me to have fun. This position allows me the latitude and academic freedom to make something happen.”
His love for unusual and unconventional music grew as he settled into to teaching.
“I certainly didn’t tread traditional ground as far as being a music teacher,” Nichols said. By “the late 1960s and ’70s … lots of stuff was being questioned and rethought, including what music could be.
“For the first time, there were no musical boundaries. We were free to experiment.”
One of the results has been the bridging of the UMM music program and the surrounding Machias area community.
“I’m a loss leader for the college. I don’t see the amount of students that other professors do,” he said. “Therefore, almost everything we do is integrating the school and the community. We teach an 18-year-old student that he shouldn’t be creeped out to be in a musical group with a 90-year-old.”
Nichols stood out when Cindy Huggins interviewed for the UMM presidency in June 2007.
“Gene attended the open question-and-answer session. I couldn’t help noticing his shiny yellow patent leather shoes, which he proudly told me had been purchased recently at a local gas station. Gene was an important part of my introduction to life in a small rural town, and I’ve admired him ever since then.
“Part of what makes UMM special is our strong connection to the local region,” Huggins said. “Gene Nichols is singlehandedly responsible for much of that connection. He makes community members feel welcomed and appreciated on campus, and he routinely transports large chunks of campus life out into the surrounding communities.”
In the same way artists keep an eye out for items they can use to create art, Nichols said, he watches for things that make sound, create a beat, float a melody.
“Some people like the straight and narrow,” he said. “But as Cole Porter wrote, ‘Don’t Fence Me In.’ I just keep punching from inside the bag, trying to get as wide a swath of life as possible.”
“Gene Nichols lives and breathes music,” Huggins said, “and he pretty much finds a way to make music 365 days a year. He has one of the most generous souls that I have ever known.”