’Tis The Season…To Make Money!

You see them everywhere this time of year–costumed carolers at the mall, on the streets, at your office party, and even on television and in movies. What you may not know is that a considerable number of those “wallpaper singers” have music degrees and a lot of professional experience. Why would you sing “Quando m’en vo” for adoring fans on the stage of the local opera house one night and sing “Deck the Halls” for frazzled shoppers outside Hickory Farms the next day? “Money, money, money!” says Leanna Brand, founder of the Los Angeles caroling group A Little Dickens. A professional singer for 16 years, Brand herself performed “…anything and everything singing-wise to keep afloat,” including opera, concerts, paid chorus, and background singing for films and commercials.

After working for other caroling groups for $25-$50 an hour, Leanna started A Little Dickens 10 years ago when she decided it would be more lucrative to start her own seasonal business. She auditions a few new singers each year, but she adds, “Mostly I choose people I have worked with on other jobs, and am confident of their skills.” Singers must be excellent sight-readers, because there is no time to rehearse four hours’ worth of repertoire, including traditional Christmas and Chanukah music. “If people ask for a Japanese Christmas carol, or ‘Stille Nacht’ in German, we’ve got it!”

Anyone considering starting a caroling business for Christmas 1999 should start planning, organizing and booking now, says Rhonda Sherwood, director of The Dickens Carolers™ of Fall City, Washington. Each summer The Dickens Carolers™ recruit singers, including Seattle Opera choristers. “The initial solo audition for an audition panel takes five minutes,” says Sherwood, “but the quartet call-backs can take hours. We auditioned 80 singers for 20 openings.” The Dickens Carolers™, now in their 21st season, hired 47 singers for 11 quartets, plus alternates. About half the singers are full-time singer/actors who are available 24 hours a day; the others are singers with day jobs (for example: engineers, teachers, music students) who sing evening and weekend jobs. Full-time singers can expect to earn up to $3,000 during the holiday season, while part-timers can easily earn $750. “Our singers range in age from 16-60. We need professionalism and maturity, no matter what age!”

Judith Dunlore, the founder and director of California’s Lamplight Carolers™, says she “…recognized a market need and filled it.” Dunlore, a classically trained soprano who has performed in Zürich and Vienna, was music director for a church in a very affluent area of California. Before the holidays, people would call the church and ask if the choir could sing carols at a party for a “donation to the Organ Fund.” “After a couple of requests, I had to refuse, but I realized that I knew singers who would do this for the same amount of money,” says Dunlore. “The first year we just wore scarves and snow caps and sang traditional carols. The next year, we costumed, started getting more contemporary arrangements and became Lamplight Carolers™.” Based in Long Beach, Lamplight Carolers™ employs 50-60 singers each year, who perform from San Diego to Santa Barbara to Palm Springs and Las Vegas. Performances include private and corporate parties, major hotels (Ritz Carlton, Disneyland Hotel), celebrity homes, and televised Christmas specials.

Al Motter shuts down his Denver, Colorado vocal studio each December to perform with the caroling group he founded. By late September, he has more than 80 caroling jobs lined up for his 12-15 singers. He recommends that itinerant carolers in any city “make a demo tape and contact agencies who book entertainers for parties. They will generally ask you what you charge and then they will add their fee on the top.” When he started The Dickens Carolers 12 years ago he depended heavily on three or four local booking agents, but now most bookings are referrals or repeat business. Motter’s carolers are all trained singers with music degrees, so they stand out against the many local amateur and student groups. “Sure, you price yourself out of some jobs, but by charging more than other caroling groups, you work fewer hours and make more money.”

Caroling is not for everyone. “You have to have a pleasing personality,” says Al Motter. “No stone-faced singers!” adds Rhonda Sherwood. “We auditioned at least 20 singers with gorgeous solo voices who had absolutely no communication skills.” She even requires a one-minute monologue in auditions “to see which singers have difficulty talking in public!” Leanna Brand looks for “good singers with personality who can take some ribbing about the costumes, and singers who are ‘ON TIME!!!’

“There is nothing more frustrating than the diva soprano who thinks the gig will start whenever she gets there! If you are late–you are history!” Motter warns his singers not to eat too much (“There is food everywhere!”) and has a strict no-alcohol rule while on the job. Singers must be reliable, punctual, and professional, and unflappable; Brand recalls the time “The Stripping Santa” showed up at a party during carols!

Health and stamina are crucial. “When you are around so many people, it’s hard to avoid germs,” says Judith Siirila, a classical and studio singer in her 11th season with Lamplight Carolers™. Singers need to dress warmly for outdoor venues, get enough sleep, wash hands frequently (or wear gloves), and get a flu shot. Allergies are a consideration. Most corporate parties and public venues are smoke-free, but private parties can be a blue haze of cigarette and cigar smoke, says Rhonda Sherwood. Another challenge is staying “fresh” after singing the same songs hundreds of times, day after day…up to eight hours a day. Breaks are vital. Sherwood’s singers are paid a minimum “out the door” fee for 10 minutes up to two hours of caroling. The second and subsequent hours of singing are 45 minutes on, with a 15-minute break. Al Motter also rests his singers by interspersing solos with the ensemble pieces.

All agree that costumes are a must for professional carolers–clients expect you to look as polished as you sound. Leanna Brand had three matching sets of quartet costumes made to her design for A Little Dickens. Some groups provide costumes and other groups ask singers to purchase or make their own costume. If a singer isn’t required to wear the “company” costume, it’s a good idea to invest in your own costume because, as one director admitted, “our costumes are cleaned once at the beginning of the season and once when we’re through.” Renting is prohibitively expensive–a very basic costume of a bonnet, cape and long skirt can easily rent for $100 a weekend. Fortunately, costumes are the main start-up expense, as the music is most often comprised of public domain, royalty-free songs and original arrangements.

Judith Siirila learned about the Lamplight Carolers™ job from “a mezzo friend, who was told by a soprano friend, who was told by so on and so forth….” It’s all about “networking, networking, networking,” she says. “I seldom audition anymore, because I get most of my jobs from people seeing me in performance or from recommendations. It is simply invaluable to meet as many people as you can, and Christmas caroling is a terrific way to do that. The most important thing is to be professional. If people like you and find out that they can trust you, you WILL work!” She says the pay is good and singers do accept tips, which can range from $5 to $200, split four ways. “That is where your people skills come in. You need to give people what they want, and they may give you what you want–applause, recognition and money!”

Cynthia Vaughn

Contributing Editor Cynthia Vaughn has had successful private voice studios in Newark, California; Hanover Park, Illinois; Middletown, New York; Arvada, Colorado; and Springboro, Ohio. She is currently a doctoral candidate and Teaching Assistant at the University of Northern Colorado.