- This is Poly
A jazz clarinetist on Royal Street had folks dancing in the street in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Poly’s Advanced Concert Choir added their voices to the famous music scene by sharing their vocal talents with young and old during a four-day tour of the Big Easy.
Hours after leaving frigid 5-degree NYC and flying out of Newark, Music Director Dan Doughty was leading 20 vocalists singing “Higher and Higher” and other selections at Oscar Dunn Park across Decatur Street from the landmark Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral. Tourists strolling along from Café Du Monde stopped to listen as horse-drawn carriages passed by. Among the listeners were Poly alumnae Francesca Corsalini ’22 and Miranda Meyer ’22, who came to reconnect with friends.
Music appreciation is everywhere in New Orleans. “My favorite performance was when we were busking,” Alida Lissak ’23 said of the experience, “In New York, people walk right past people singing, but in New Orleans, people stopped and listened. It was really exciting to draw an audience in and know that people enjoy listening to us.”
Wearing her navy blue Advanced Concert Choir hoodie, Izzy Leyton ’25 said she had enjoyed going on a bus tour soon after their arrival that included the picturesque Garden District, a famous cemetery, Congo Square in Louis Armstrong Park, among other sites.
Saturday evening the group began their culinary journey through New Orleans cuisine at Mulate’s, known as “the original Cajun restaurant,” which featured live music in a festive atmosphere. They were also accompanied by Upper School dean Alexis Perez and music teacher Orrin Wilson, who hails from New Orleans.
Brave members of the choir held a baby alligator during a guided boat tour of the Manchac Swamp, home to alligators, migratory birds, and wild pigs, and surrounded by cypress trees. Legend has it that the swamp is haunted by the ghost of Julia Brown, a local voodoo queen. “I held an alligator!” exclaimed Lissak. Beatrice Larkin ’23 added, “I enjoyed watching Mr. Doughty hold an alligator.”
“My favorite part of the swamp tour was the tour guide,” Leyton said afterward. “He had such a vibrant personality and was very different than anyone you would meet in NYC.”
Back from their bayou adventures, Advanced Concert Choir boarded a coach bus to Lambeth House, a retirement community on the banks of the Mississippi River not far from Tulane University.
Here the students gathered on stage in a small meeting room where residents were sitting in anticipation of a musical treat. They were not disappointed. Doughty had the students introduce each piece they performed from a Haitian piece, “Twa Tanbou,” to a wistful song, “Wanting Memories.” When the standard, “Embraceable You” by George Gershwin, was announced, a voice from the audience repeated appreciatively, “Gershwin!”
At the end of the concert, Doughty thanked the audience for hosting the choir. The residents responded with hands raised with eager questions. Kathy asked Doughty how many sections there were in the Advanced Concert Choir. He said that sometimes four, five, or six, which impressed her. She wanted Doughty and the choir to know how much she had enjoyed the concert. Ellen said that Lambeth House has a choir with 25 members and many of whom have sung throughout their lives.
The residents were energized and delighted by the students. “It was so nice seeing their faces light up as we sang different songs and meeting some of them, too, getting to know some of them were in choirs, too,“ said Jasmine Donald ’24 after the performance. “They were just so excited to have live music and so appreciative of our performance,” said Anjali Budhram ’24. Clearly, the good feelings were mutual as the students mingled after their performance.
As the choir was heading to the bus, a woman, Joan Oppenheim, followed them out at a pretty quick pace for someone who will be 102 in March. She was disappointed because she thought the concert was the following Sunday. It turns out that Joan’s three great granddaughters attend Poly — Eleanor W. ’30, Louisa W. ’33, and Audrey W. ’35. What a small world! One of the adults on the trip stayed behind to speak with Joan, a lifelong resident of New Orleans, a former volunteer at the World War II Museum, and an evacuee during Hurricane Katrina. Joan took her guest up to the twelfth floor roof deck for the magnificent view of the Mississippi.
In the evening, students enjoyed a ghost tour of the French Quarter, which Donald Shields ’25 enjoyed, “learning about the spooky and dark side of NOLA that people might not typically know about. The LaLaurie house, the five little boys, the haunted attic was honestly just a very enjoyable experience.” The charismatic tour guide was a hit, weaving the history of the city with colorful local lore. Genevieve Fitzpatrick ’24 agreed, “I enjoyed the ghost tour because it allowed everyone to learn important history about New Orleans while also being really fun and entertaining.”
The following day, the students headed to Mardi Gras World, where they got to see where the colorful and whimsical floats for the upcoming parades and local celebrations are created.
After their tour of Mardi Gras World and a bit of lunch, the choir boarded a bus for a half hour ride to the Metairie Park Country Day School to perform for and with a host choir.
Metairie’s Choir Director Meredeth Hotard greeted them in a beautiful music room. Poly’s choir warmed up while waiting for their Upper School peers to arrive. The Metairie students filled the seats set on risers. Doughty and Poly students introduced them to some vocal warm up exercises that they use. “Ma lay la…” they vocalized and were echoed by their new friends. Hotard asked her students to share a few pieces with their guests. “It was so fun to get to know the other students and really beautiful to hear them sing,” said Zeke Wise ’24.
Poly then shared a South African song, “Inodana,” a Haitian song, “Twa Tanbou,” and “Embraceable You.” Afterward, Hotard introduced a vocal game. The students broke into groups, mixing Poly and Metairie students. Hotard would call out a word such as “talk” or “city” and the groups competed to be the fastest to sing a song with those words in the title. A lot of fun and laughter ensued. Then the students all shared some delicious King Cake, part of the Mardi Gras tradition.
“I really enjoyed talking to the other teenagers afterwards!” said Natasha Ellis ’23, “It was also interesting to hear about their experiences living in New Orleans!”
As the bus was loading, Upper School Principal Augustine Whyte arrived with another King Cake to go. He explained that it was made by the award-winning Dong Phuong Bakery, an example of the diversity that is New Orleans.
“Throughout the trip, we encountered new people—students at Metairie Park Country Day School, residents at the Lambeth House Retirement Community, tour guides, etc.—and our group never ceased to impress me with their ability to mingle, socialize, and make new friends.”Dan Doughty
Back in the French Quarter, there was time to explore. “The streets and architecture were so beautiful and unique,” said Drew Waldman ’25. “There were many bookstores, cafes, and boutiques, and there was so much art everywhere, both visual and musical. I enjoyed the local cuisine of New Orleans, especially the beignets from Café Du Monde. Everywhere we went we heard jazz, which is one of my favorite genres of music.”
“My favorite part of the trip was the spectacular street musicians that surround you throughout the French Quarter,” added Izzy Gerling ’25.
On their last evening in New Orleans, the students enjoyed a riverboat cruise. “The jazz band on the riverboat cruise was absolutely incredible,” said Lissak, “and really cool to hear such a different style of music than I normally hear.”
Leyton added, “The weather was beautiful and I enjoyed sitting at the top of the boat after a delicious dinner. The musicians were very talented and played local and classic New Orleans music.”
Before catching their flight back to cold New York, the students participated in a Jazz Workshop at the University of New Orleans led by Jenna McSwain, singer and songwriter and jazz professor. “The highlight for me was the jazz workshop,” said Lissak. “We got to work through our repertoire and add personality to it like scooping notes and changing dynamics.”
“I was surprised to learn that I actually know how to scat on the fly!” said Jasmine Donald after the workshop. “It was so much fun learning that the trick to scatting is to imitate a jazz instrument. I loved learning about the different jazz instruments and types of traditions, such as the ‘Second Line’ tradition.”
For Kai Sergeant ’23, the highlight of the trip was “learning about and listening to all the incredible music that New Orleans shares. I was thrilled to be taught the many different kinds of music and their histories. I have definitely come back feeling inspired and eager to sing and play what I have learned.”
Looking back on the tour, Doughty said of the choir, “They performed beautifully throughout the tour and embraced every new experience. From holding an alligator and crawfish, to sampling the local cuisine, they were open minded and intellectually curious every step of the way.”
“Performance tours are an excellent way to test and develop one’s performance skills,” Doughty continued. “Leaving the safety of the venue and audiences we know well and singing in new spaces for different people in uncertain circumstances forces a performer to elevate their skills and deliver under pressure. The Advanced Concert Choir did a fantastic job with these challenges, and each of them will be a better performer because of it. Performance tours are also an excellent way to develop a community. It was so fun to watch the group interact with each other and form bonds that will last a lifetime.”