‘An emotional experience.’ DG North band, choir performs in London

Members of the Downers Grove North High School marching band prepare to step off in London's New Year's Day parade. (Courtesy of Downers Grove North)

Ringing in 2023 always will be especially memorable for one group of Downers Grove North High School students.

That’s because 210 band and choir members were invited to take their talents across the pond to perform in London’s famous New Year’s Day Parade and Choral Festival.

The high school is one of only about 20 marching bands from the U.S. picked to participate.

“Performing in the London New Year’s Day Parade was an experience I will never forget,” said North senior Claire Gustis, who plays the flute and piccolo. “It felt amazing getting to see everyone’s reactions and excited faces when our band came by. One of my favorite memories from the parade was when I heard a little boy ask his mom why we couldn’t keep giving him high-fives and she responded that we had to perform.”

Gustis said witnessing the impact she and her fellow students were making on the younger generation of potential future musicians was inspiring.

“I remember watching bands in parades as a kid and knowing that was what I wanted to do, so it was amazing to acknowledge that I was now an inspiration to other kids,” she said.

Downers Grove North students previously performed in the London New Year’s Day Parade in 2011 and 2019.

“But this is the first year we added a new component and invited the choir to go,” North Fine Arts Chairperson Brayer Teague said. “We’ve just never tried to take on such a massive undertaking, but we saw this as a wonderful opportunity for even more students to be able to experience London and feel a connection to the music of England and give them a really outstanding performance experience.”

Teague can attest to how impactful the trip can be for students.

“We still hear from those who traveled in 2011 and 2019 that this was a life-changing, once-in-a-lifetime memory that they still carry with them,” Teague said. “Especially the people who did the tour in 2011, they’ve been out of school for a while so it’s really fun to hear back from them about the memories they created that will stick with them forever. Students feel a great deal of civic pride representing their community, state and the United States.”

North students, as well as 10 chaperones, were able to spend several days in London sightseeing in addition to performing. The group left for London on Dec. 27 and returned from the tour Jan. 3.

Students and staff prepared for the tour for 14 months after an invitation from London dignitaries who traveled to North in October 2021. Students, who must pay their own way to travel, then had to raise funds to support the tour.

And there was plenty of rehearsing.

“We not only have to practice parade marching and playing music we can perform through the streets, but we also have to teach the students a specifically choreographed routine for the television zone,” Teague said. “We love giving students that kind of challenge to work toward and watching them rise to the occasion.”

Gustis said performing in the London International Choral festival was an experience she will not soon forget.

“Getting to perform in a beautiful cathedral alongside a spectacular orchestra was such an emotional experience in a positive way,” she said. “I have never done a performance of that magnitude with such challenging music, so I was able to prove to myself that working hard will pay off and leave lifelong memories.”

London’s New Year’s Day Parade typically draws more than 500,000 spectators along the streets of London and a worldwide broadcast audience in the millions.

“There’s a massive turnout for the parade,” Teague said. “It’s an incredibly energizing and affirming experience for our students to experience the cheering crowds as they perform. They feel like superstars.”

For Teague, who is retiring in May, the 2023 tour is a capstone closure to his teaching career at Downers Grove North where he joined the faculty in 1993.

“This was my 22nd tour with DGN musicians and my 10th international tour with the band,” he said. “I feel very grateful to have worked in this community for the past 30 years and to have had a chance to travel with our wonderful students all over the globe.”