From Peace Corps musician to professor of math


DVC math instructor Ted Nirgiotis (Photo by Chris Corbin/2010 The Inquirer)

DVC math instructor Ted Nirgiotis’ passion for music started when he joined the Peace Corps at age 20 and was sent to an island in Fiji. 

There, he picked up a guitar, an instrument he’d played years earlier, and formed a rock band with two other volunteers.

“It was the most popular rock band [on the island], because it was the only rock band,” Nirgiotis said.
Having already done undergraduate work in math at Harvard, he studied global music as he traveled the world.

Eventually Nirgiotis got a graduate degree at the University of Illinois and began his life as musician and math instructor.

“I think many people don’t have any sort of creative outlet,” he said. “But I think it’s really part of being a full person. It does good things for you psychologically.”

Nirgiotis would know. He’s been doubling as math teacher and musician for more than 30 years, and 21of them at DVC. 

Nirgiotis said there are similarities and differences in ways of thinking about math and music.

“In some ways you use the same part of the brain to do the math and music, if you’re thinking about the theory of the music,” he said. “But on the other hand, you’re not really thinking fast enough . . . You’re beyond thinking, so it’s not like doing math anymore.”

He said this is especially true of jazz, which he plays in his current group, called “Fortune Smiles,” a quintet of musicians who perform and record jazz music that infuses Brazilian, Afro-Cuban, and other rhythmically interesting Latin beats.
“The thing about jazz is the feeling of the music, and that’s completely emotional,” Nirgiotis said.
In June his group will play with another jazz group headed by Rory Snyder, director of jazz studies at DVC.

“He took my Jazz Theory an Improvisation class a while ago and formed his own band after that,” Snyder said. “Ted [Nirgiotis] is a fine guitarist and mathematician.”

According to his students, Nirgiotis does not really fuse math and music while in the classroom, but he is an inspiring teacher all the same.

“He talks about music a little,” said Erik Toffelsen, a fourth semester philosophy major. “I had fun talking with him because I play guitar too.” 

“He’s an awesome teacher, and for math, he’s the guy to take,” he said. “He just knows how to help you.”

Nirgiotis cannot decide which he loves more, math or music, but he appreciates his ability to practice both and not have to choose. 

“When I’m here, I concentrate on doing this job well,” Nirgiotis said of his teaching.  “Then I go home and practice before my wife and daughter get home.”

His advice for studying both math and music is simple: Practice. 

“You can’t master it if you don’t practice it enough,” Nirgiotis said. “And engage with it, meaning, try to go beyond the surface level. Why is it significant and what are the connections?”

And no matter what it is, Nirgiotis said, find something creative to do in order to create a sense of being balanced and well-rounded.

“There are lots of possibilities,” he said. 

Nirgiotis’ group, “Fortune Smiles,” can be found on the web at and will be playing their next show at 8 p.m. on Friday, June 4 at Armando’s in Martinez.


Contact Annie Sciacca at [email protected]