After his music-filled high school experience at New Trier, Dan Ponce’s career has come full circle. Returning to his original passion, he has gained recognition as the founding member of the famed a cappella group, Straight No Chaser.
Photograph by Andrew Zaeh
High School: New Trier
Graduation Year: 1995
Favorite Classes: English, Choir, Orchestra, and Drama
Extracurriculars: Musicals, Lagniappe/Potpourri Variety Show, Track, and Cross Country
Favorite Places to Hang Out: Chuck Wagon, CJ Arthur’s, and Gillson Park
Some believe that the best things come when they are least expected. But what they don’t mention are the experiences in life that prepared each individual for such fortuitous moments. While these great events come as surprises, the ability to handle them can often be the result of months or years of priming. This was the case for New Trier graduate Dan Ponce, who after years of training as a professional singer finally landed his big break once he changed his career objectives toward becoming a broadcast journalist. Looking back, he ascribes much of his current success to his outstanding music education in high school—remembering his most influential experiences and teachers.
After graduating from Indiana University with a double degree in music and journalism, Dan moved to Atlanta to pursue his music career for several years. Things didn’t progress quite as he wanted, so he decided to return home to enroll in Northwestern University’s master’s program in broadcast journalism. While his love for news may not have compared to his passion for music, watching his father, Phil Ponce, on the nightly CBS news was inspiration enough. While at Medill, Dan began working at an NBC affiliate (WILX) in Lansing, Michigan, as a reporter and a weekend anchor. After 15 months up north, he was hired at ABC7 (WLS) in Chicago. With Chicago recognized as one of the best local news markets in the nation, this was a huge step in his journalism career.
In April 2006, Dan returned to Indiana University for a reunion of a men’s a cappella group he founded there: Straight No Chaser (SNC). In honor of the event, a fellow member and Chicagoan, Randy Stine, posted clips from one of their 1998 concerts on YouTube to share with the other founding members. The video was of a nearly decade-old performance of “The 12 Days of Christmas” interweaving Toto’s “Africa.” Unexpectedly, the video received more than 7 million views in December 2007 alone, becoming the most popular viral holiday music video of the season. Meanwhile, Dan was still working as a general assignment reporter at ABC7, covering everything from weather to crime.
Fortuitously, Atlantic Chairman/CEO Craig Kallman was one of the millions viewing SNC’s video and thought the group would be a fresh addition to the label. “[All of the original members] were spread across the country; we all had different jobs and decided to drop what we were doing and go back to it,” explains Dan. “When the head of a major label calls you and says they want to do an album, you say yes.” Since then, the group has released two albums—Holiday Spirits and Christmas Cheers—with their third due out in April—With a Twist. They sold out most of their shows nationwide on their last tour, and were close to selling out the Chicago Theatre in three days of tickets sales for their spring show on April 11. “It’s pretty cool. The public is embracing a very niche genre of music; a cappella is not mainstream,” says Dan. “It’s humbling to see we have fans coast to coast. We’re selling out shows everywhere.”
He attributes much of his preparation for both his career in music and journalism to his experience in the Music Department at New Trier. “I wish that every kid in the Chicago area could have the same high school experience as I had,” explains Dan. “Even if you don’t go into music, it’s such an amazing experience to be a part of those ensembles and be under the direction of great [music] teachers like Phil Smith, Ted Klinka, and Dave Bachmann. It helps with everything you do in life—you’re performing, you’re storytelling, you’re communicating in a live setting. That’s why I love being a musician and a reporter.”
While at the Winnetka Campus in the mid ’90s, he was involved in all the student choirs—swing choir, choir opera, and concert choir—and also played the violin in the orchestra. Extracurricularly, he was equally as active in the performing arts, acting and singing in plays like West Side Story, where he played his favorite role as Bernardo. Foreshadowing his future with SNC, he even started his first men’s a cappella group, aptly named New Trier A Cappella. “It was my warm-up for going to Indiana and starting Straight No Chaser,” Dan explains.
Since then, he has managed to stay in touch with both peers and teachers from his alma mater. This past winter, he met up with Pat Gagnon, who was another star performer at New Trier and also followed his performing art dreams. Dan saw Pat perform in Funny Girl at the Drury Lane Theatre. One of his favorite New Trier choral teachers, Ted Klinka, even attended the SNC concert this past December at the Park West. “He was probably my greatest influence as a choral singer,” says Dan. “I even dedicated a song to him at the show.”
While right now he is embarking on a 38-city, cross-country tour with SNC, he hopes to come back to Chicago and continue with his career in journalism. A return to the North Shore may even be in the not-so-distant future. “New Trier was a great experience, I hope to send my kids there one day,” he envisions. “There’s a reason why it’s the best high school in the country.”