Even students who don't go on the trip love him. On ratemyprofessors.com, students post comments like "great professor!!" and "TAKE HIM!" Comparisons to comedian and actor Robin Williams are frequent.
But like Williams, Nissen has a serious side. He demands a lot from the amateur Ann Arbor Concert Band (which performs January 20 at the Michigan Theater--see Events). "He is type triple-A," says Phillip Rhodes, trumpet player and president of the band. "He expects a lot and always tries to take it to the next level." The eighty members, who range in age from about twenty-five to seventy-five, practice for two hours weekly and perform four times each year. Says Nissen, "I understand they're amateurs, but we can always be better."
Lots of music and theater people know Nissen, who's also directed ensembles for the U-M Gilbert & Sullivan Society and Ann Arbor Civic Theatre. Many old-timers remember the large, talented Nissen household on Spring Street. Nissen calls his father, Gene, a retired U-M administrator and an ordained Lutheran minister, "one of the greatest creative minds I've ever known." His mother, Pat, who died in 1997, "thought outside the box"--in 1959, she was featured on the cover of Ladies' Home Journal for choosing to give birth to his sister Anna at home.