Their schools might be rivals, but Lafayette High School and Oxford High School choir directors Hannah and Thomas Ardrey couldn’t be more in sync.
Written by Rachel Burchfield | Photographed by Joe Worthem and Kate Brent
Hannah and Thomas Ardrey — married for a year this summer — will tell you, no question, they never would have met had it not been for music.
Long before Thomas and Hannah became choir directors at rival high schools, they connected as Hannah, a then-rising senior at the University of Mississippi, watched Thomas, a soon-to-be graduate of Auburn, audition for the master’s in choral conducting program at UM. She had seen many auditions before and had never remembered a single one. But when the man who would become her husband auditioned, she took notice.
“Had I known that was my husband, I would have made more of an effort to look good that day,” Hannah said, laughing. “There’s no way we would have ever met had it not been for music.”
After she graduated from UM, Hannah joined Thomas in the master’s program, a year behind him. As Hannah tells it, she didn’t like him at first. He was too smart, too put together — and, in her own words, she wasn’t. But, after several months of his chasing her, she relented, and, in spring 2014, they became a couple.
“Whenever he did something that annoyed me, I still wanted to be around him,” Hannah said. “That was my telltale sign. It was a perfect match.”
They soon realized how much they had in common, from having Type A personalities and sharing a love of coffee to desiring to do the same line of work eventually. Thomas said he always knew he wanted to be a music teacher; Hannah, who had grown up around music her entire life and whose mother was a music teacher, originally wanted to be a surgeon but found her true calling in the comfortable space of music. In the fall of 2014, Thomas began his career at Oxford High School, and, the next fall, Hannah landed the crosstown rival job at Lafayette High School.
Unlike their athletic counterparts like football or basketball, the two choirs don’t directly compete against one another, but both schools do participate in choir contests where they compete and receive ratings on how well the choir does. And, yes, the couple compares scores.
For the Ardreys, it’s more about collaboration than competition. During the annual Crosstown Classic football game between OHS and LHS, the choirs sing the national anthem together as a sign of unity and solidarity. When the game is at OHS, Thomas conducts; when it’s played at LHS, Hannah leads the choirs.
“We mix students up and have them stand by someone they’ve never met before,” Hannah said. “It just shows how music can bring anyone together for those 90 seconds, and it shows the students can be united. It’s something the kids look forward to every year, and it brings people together.”
The pair got engaged in late summer 2018, after more than four years of dating. They both sing in the choir at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Oxford, which is where Thomas opted to pop the question to Hannah. Even before the proposal, they had set a wedding date — June 8, 2019, at 6 p.m. So, as Thomas got down on one knee and surprised Hannah inside the church at 6 p.m. that August evening, he told her it was what St. Peter’s would look like at the exact time of their wedding, and would she marry him? She, of course, said yes.
“Our church is the one place in Oxford that really meant a lot to both of us,” Thomas said.
True to their plans, they married — with a full choir participating — at St. Peter’s on June 8 of last year.
Since their wedding, both have excelled in their careers: Thomas was named the 2019 Young Music Teacher of the Year by the Mississippi Music Educators Association the day before his wife was named the 2019-2020 Mississippi Teacher of the Year by the Mississippi Department of Education.
Deeply entrenched in their careers, they admit while they do compare notes sometimes, they make a conscious effort not to talk about their work incessantly at home, especially as they’ve taught virtually for much of 2020.
“We try hard to not constantly talk about choir and teaching,” Thomas said. “Luckily we both love what we do so we don’t mind talking about it a lot, but it can be all-consuming. Sometimes we say ‘let’s watch some mindless, horrible TV’ just so we can not talk about teaching music for a couple of hours.”
Even though Thomas is known as “the piano man” to their friends for his skills on the ivories, and even though the couple sometimes will spend an evening watching choir videos on YouTube, it’s not a constant songfest at the Ardrey house, he says.
“Not a whole lot of singing goes on at home,” Thomas said. “We don’t listen to music. We do it eight hours a day, so we get our fill. We’ve found other hobbies since music takes up the majority of our lives.”
There are perks, though, to doing the same work as your spouse. They attend one another’s choir concerts and turn the pages for the piano player while the other is conducting. They test music out on each other and make sure their choirs never sing the same piece. They sing duets together at St. Peter’s, help each other with their respective school musicals and collaborate on the music for Oxford community events like Veterans Day and Memorial Day. They share the highs and lows of cumulatively having 300 children between them — none of which they have to take home.
“Every day is better than the day before,” Hannah said. “We work as a team and are very much in tune with each other’s wants and needs. We encourage each other and there’s no competition between us usually, because we both have very different styles of teaching. His students love him; my students love me most of the time. We work really well together.”