Most college professors teach in a lecture hall or a science lab.
But for Dr. Michael Nickens, the classroom is often a 10,000-seat arena. And class is in session every time the George Mason basketball team plays at home.
Nickens, better known as Doc Nix, is a tenured professor of music and director of the pep band at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
“When I started the Green Machine, my hope was to make something that was going to be important to everyone,” says Nickens. “Not only the people in the group, but to the community that supports them and comes out to cheer them on.”
Named “The Most Entertaining Pep Band in College Basketball” by Bleacher Report, Doc Nix and The Green Machine are consistently breaking new ground and picking up the entire George Mason community every step along the way.
LOVE AT FIRST NOTE
Music has always been a mainstay in Nickens’ life. As a young boy, he learned piano listening to his Aunt Noni play. He was a drum major in high school and a member of several college marching bands, including the Yale Precision Marching Band. He also studied music at the Manhattan School of Music and he earned his doctorate degree at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
“For me, music was a personal expression” say Nickens. “But it was also the way I made lots of friends and got myself out and around town and really connected with the community.”
And when George Mason University decided to hire a pep band director following their 2006 Final Four appearance, Nickens knew it was an opportunity to build something that would leave a lasting impression.
“It was going to be about more than just basketball. It was about the entire community coming together to rally around this band.”
BIRTH OF THE GREEN MACHINE
When he arrived at George Mason, Nickens had a vision for what he thought a college pep band could be. And he wanted everyone to be a part of it.
“We built something that was specifically for a stadium,” recalls Nickens. “Getting inspired not only by the marching band instruments, but also building around the nucleus of a rock band.”
Unlike most pep bands, the Green Machine includes electric guitar, electric mallets, rappers, singers, synthesizers, bagpipes, oboe, violin, viola, cello, drum set, roto toms, tuba, piccolo, trombone, saxophone, sousaphone, and more.
“We feature everyone and everything under the sun,” claims vocalist and trombonist Andrew Velez. “The Green Machine is definitely a melting pot of personalities, cultures and backgrounds. We embrace diversity and I think that’s one of the key components that makes us so great.”
Percussionist Kendell Haywood adds: “It’s that inclusiveness that has allowed us to get to where we are.”
“I don’t want to deprive anyone of a creative outlet simply because they picked one instrument over another,” explains Nickens. “We just bring them all together.”
PUTTING THE “LEADER” IN BAND LEADER
In the past ten years, The Green Machine has represented George Mason in all sorts of new ways. They’ve made appearances at the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament, the NCAA Tournament, festivals, community events, even on stage with the country music group Lady Antebellum.
In 2015, the band was ranked “The #1 Pep Band in the Nation” by the NCAA, but Nickens still prefers to focus on teaching. He offers courses like Brass Methods and Popular Music in America. He helps out with several local area high school marching bands. He even delivered a TED Talk on Music, Identity, Diversity, and Convergence.
“It means a lot to me to help a young person develop their personal narrative,” reflects Nickens. “The teachers that meant the most to me, as I was coming up, figured out ways to take my crazy ideas and then teach me how to manifest those things that I was dreaming about. I want to make sure that I’m passing that along to my students.”
Trombonist Ryan Carter adds: “Doc is the type of leader who wants to make everybody else a leader… and he’s inspiring all of us to become leaders on our own.”
THE ULTIMATE GAME CHANGER
Nickens may have had a vision for how he wanted to shape the future of college pep bands, but there’s no way he could have imagined the magnitude of its impact.
Applications and enrollment at George Mason University continue to rise every year. The community—including fans, alumni, administration and even local businesses—have rallied around The Green Machine and their eccentric leader. Doc Nix bobbleheads, garden gnomes and plush dolls have even become a mainstay throughout campus.
As Nickens puts it, “Every time I come into someone’s office and they’ve got a Doc Nix sitting on their desk, it lets me know that the joy and happiness that I’m hoping to give to everyone, it’s out there and it’s happening.”
Today, Doc Nix and The Green Machine continue to reinvent what it means to be a college pep band, proving that anything is possible when you give young people a chance to really show off who they are and who they want to be.
Sitting in his office, surrounded by dozens of photos, mementos, awards and “Doc Nix” bobbleheads, Nickens reflects on how he has been able to help his students see their own potential—just like his mentors once did for him.
“Being able to make that kind of impact has been an amazing experience.”