WHO: Vicki Nichols, a music teacher in Grandview

WHAT: After 23 years as the director of Grandview Elementary’s Zebra Strings program, Nichols has been named a semifinalist for the Grammy Museum’s Music Educator Award. 

WHY IT’S SO GREAT: Fewer people live in Grandview, a Central Texas hamlet with a population of 1,889, than were nominated for this year’s music education Grammy, an annual award for teachers who have made “a significant and lasting contribution to the music education field.” Nichols more than qualifies, having built a renowned music program that has her elementary school students traveling across the country every year.

Nichols hadn’t always wanted to teach music. “I actually wanted to be a basketball coach when I started,” she says. But she’s been playing piano since the age of five, and she eventually gravitated to the subject she loved most, becoming Grandview Elementary’s music teacher in 1997. 

Zebra Strings did not manifest immediately. “I was three years in, teaching recorder to fifth grade classes, and I felt like the students needed a more challenging instrument,” Nichols recalls. She chose the violin, which she’d been teaching as a side hustle since she was fifteen. She convinced Grandview ISD’s superintendent to let her purchase fifty violins for the fifth grade class. (None of her students missed the recorder.) The program was so successful that the next year, the school purchased fifty more violins and cellos, enough for the third and fourth grade classes to join in. Today, there are three hundred Grandview school kids learning to play string instruments as part of their regular music class. 

Zebra Strings, so named for the school’s mascot, soon became a nationally touring music program. They started closer to home, playing in an annual school music competition in Carrollton, but soon Nichols successfully lobbied for performances at Fort Worth’s Bass Performance Hall, and the Morton H. Meyerson Center, where the Dallas Symphony Orchestra plays. In 2005, Nichols started emailing various venues in Branson, Missouri, and Zebra Strings has made annual pilgrimages to perform there ever since. 

The music program is Grandview Elementary’s pride and joy. “We keep the doors open and music plays through the hallways all day long,” says principal Kathrine Stewart. “We did research on it when we were applying for various grants and we found that high school SAT scores were higher when [the students] were musically inclined. It’s huge for our kids academically.”

It remains unclear if GES will be able to add a Grammy to its award case. The Recording Academy has whittled the list of over two thousand nominees down to 25 semifinalists, including Nichols. It will crown a winner during Grammy week, in early February 2024. Should she win, Nichols would earn a $10,000 honorarium for the music program, and would be flown to Los Angeles to attend the Grammy Awards. She’ll be happy even if that doesn’t happen, she says.

“You can ask any kid at Grandview Elementary School, and they will tell you ‘I can’t wait to go to music class,’ ” she says. “When a child looks at you and says ‘I can’t wait to play my violin,’ then as an educator you know you’ve done your job. If I can’t do that for these kids, then I need to go home.”