OWATONNA — Fans of the Owatonna High School Carolers may notice some new faces on the risers this holiday season, but despite this being their first season, the recently-appointed singers have already been hard at work memorizing lines and perfecting moves.
“I don’t think people know how much time we put into it,” said Emilee Zirngible, who is returning to the group for her second year. “As a newbie last year, it was insane how much time we put in to knowing every single carol. Then going out, for two weeks, we spend three-and-a-half to four hours a day singing.”
Reid Stauffer, who joined the Carolers this year, said the group has been practicing ever since auditions in early October. As a “newbie” — the affectionate term for a first-year member — it’s been Stauffer’s responsibility to memorize upwards of four songs a week leading into the group’s season, which starts after Thanksgiving.
“You get tested on them,” he explained. “They’ll check each part, make sure you know the words and have it memorized … The process boils down to making sure you know what you’re doing so that it stays a really good ensemble.”
Stauffer added that choir director Chris Harris and the group’s two student directors try to be intentional about assigning longer songs over the weekend and shorter pieces in between the ensemble’s often semiweekly rehearsals.
“There aren’t tons that are super easy or super hard, but they try to be purposeful about that,” he said.
For singers who haven’t completed their homework, there’s a strike policy in place to try and prevent it from happening a second time. Still, although performers are required to devote a fair amount of time to the ensemble outside of rehearsal, Stauffer said it’s all in the name of spreading holiday cheer — which he noted adds a degree of pride to the work.
“Every motive behind everything they do is to make sure that it’s a good ensemble that can make good music, so there’s still fun behind it. There’s Christmas joy behind it,” he explained. “Everyone likes what they’re doing.”
Joining a tradition
Once the lines have been learned, and the accompanying moves committed to muscle memory, second-year member Sam Buegler said the hard works pays off when the group starts to perform.
“You’re joining a group of over 80-years-worth of carolers and you go out and get to sing for people. It’s an honor to be able to do it,” he explained. “It’s a lot of fun once you get giggin’.”
Buegler added that Harris and returning members made it clear that joining the Carolers was a serious commitment before he tried out, but that it didn’t impact his decision to audition or to sign on when offered a spot.
“It’s such a great ensemble, I really wanted to be a part of it,” he explained. “I knew I had to get [the songs] down.”
Buegler added that he initially wanted to join the group after seeing his brother go through it, something he has in common with Stauffer.
“I’ve always thought they were really cool to watch, but [hadn’t considered joining] until my mom became what she called a ‘caroler chaser’ when my sister was in it,” the first-year singer explained. “She’d go to every single show that she could. I got to see them all the time and it was really fun. It definitely influenced my decision.”
Because the group is only open to concert choir members — who are typically juniors and seniors — most carolers will only stay with the ensemble for two years, meaning that on average half of the singers are new each year. According to Harris, roughly 30 students tried out for half as many spots this fall. He added that the group is capped at around 36 singers.
“I think that’s just because of the number of robes we have and any more than that gets a little unruly, anyway,” he explained. “Some of the spaces that we have to cram in to are tight, as is.”
During the performance season — which typically runs for the first half of December — Harris said the Carolers usually sing at between 80 and 100 venues. He added that this year’s calendar was impacted by how late Thanksgiving falls.
“Some people wanted us to come the weekend of Thanksgiving, and that’s just not possible,” he explained.
Harris added that, throughout the season, it’s also his responsibility to try and mitigate strain on students’ vocal chords by monitoring the number and frequency of shows.
Buegler agreed that the inherently short caroling season makes looking after vocal health a priority.
“Lots of [tea] gets used,” he laughed.
Close bonds …
and one rivalry
For right now, gearing up for the holidays, Harris said the group’s student directors are taking the lead on rehearsals.
“They make sure that the quality of the music is consistent from year to year,” he explained, “and then I’ll step in for certain things that they don’t remember or hear.”
Every year, there is one returning student director and one newbie, to ensure that the following season there’s a veteran on the leadership team. Harris also noted that all returners, not just the second-year director, help the first-timers prepare.
“We keep each other pretty accountable,” said Zirngible, who added that the group tends to get fairly close throughout the course of the season. “We’re forced to sit by someone new every time we get on the bus.”
Stauffer added that the bond within sections — soprano, alto, tenor and bass — is also very strong, “especially now as we’re moving out of the testing phase.”
While students said there was no rivalry between the different clusters, Buegler did add there was one long-running competition among the singers.
“There are red robes and there are green robes,” he explained, “and red robes are clearly superior.”
Catch the Carolers
In addition to shows at assisted living facilities, corporate holiday parties, churches and schools, fans of the Owatonna High School Carolers can attend a number of public performances by the group throughout the first half of December.
The Carolers will be singing at the Owatonna Public Library on Dec. 4, the Lighted Parade on Dec. 5, the Owatonna Arts Center on Dec. 8 and the Toys for Tots Holiday Concert on Dec. 13, along with a number of other shows. Buegler encouraged people to come out to the latter show, in particular.
“It’s got the dinner ensemble, the jazz band. It’s a huge concert, and that’s probably one of the best places to see us,” he noted. The Toys for Tots show will take place at Trinity Lutheran Church at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 13. A complete list of performances can be found in the Nov. 23 edition of the People’s Press.