They looked like characters in a painting.
The women wore bonnets, capes, white furry muffs; the men in tuxedos, top hats and gloves. In a matter of seconds, the singers from Duluth East High School's Choralaires transformed from high-schoolers to Victorian-era carolers during a Sunday night fundraiser at Duluth Congregational Church.
That dedication is one choral director Jerome Upton preaches. "I do tell them that they are characters; they need to play the characters," he said. That's all to add to the performance experience.
The Choralaires started in 1965 as an afterschool group, and in the early '90s, it changed to a class. Laney Goei, 17, first saw the Choralaires perform when she was in first grade, and it left a lasting impression. Nick Van Loh, 18, was drawn in when he saw them perform "a 15-minute powerhouse of a song" called "What David Heard."
Goei sings alto and Van Loh bass 2 today, and they said they learn the music fast on their own before singing in quartets and octets in rehearsal. It's important to memorize it quickly to focus on the performance, Goei said.
The singers consistently bob to the music; they scan the room, making eye contact with each other and members of the audience. This helps them keep tempo, and it shows a connection to the music.
"If you listen to their 'Silent Night,' it isn't just singing 'Silent Night.' You feel something," Upton said. "I tell my kids, 'I don't want to hear your singing, I want to feel your singing, and that takes musicianship.'"
To be in the group, students have to demonstrate that, because the Choralaires are self-led, with Upton nearby. (They always know where he is, he said with a laugh.)
He could conduct them, and the show would be more refined, but teaching them to do it on their own develops independent leadership.
Van Loh is the pitch-pipe holder for the group, meaning he physically leads a song's start and cutoff and he sets the pitch for the group by blowing into the small circular orb. On the back is a tiny song list, and next to notes like "Deck" and "Bleak" is the key in which the song begins.
It's a responsibility passed on each year to a bass 2, and he'll decide who gets it next.
That's one of the self-sustaining traditions of the group, Upton said. "And they always get it right."
After each performance, students rate if it was a win or a loss; there's only been one loss in recent history. Last year, they fumbled on a new song.
"None of us knew it, and it was rough," Van Loh said.
Upton said he's always there to step in if the students need him, but a key part of the process is stepping back.
"It's what I'm supposed to do. It's not my music, it's theirs," he said.
Caroling was all about the social call, they'd invite you in and you'd be served wassail, a cider beverage, and it was rooted in tradition, Upton said.
But the origins of caroling have nothing to do with Christmas. Carols were liturgical songs used for processionals, according to Time, and it's an old tradition to travel from house to house wishing good fortune on your neighbors. In Victorian England as church carols merged with Christian folk, so did the traditions of singing and visiting.
Caroling as a tradition became widespread in the U.S. during the Great Depression when people were looking for community and inexpensive forms of entertainment, said Paul Christenson, vocal director for Duluth Denfeld High School.
On Tuesday, members of Denfeld's carol group, Maroon 16, stomped their feet during an a cappella version of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." Nearby, Christenson sat on a box-shaped drum called a cajon.
It was the group's annual tour singing in downtown Duluth. They made several stops, traveling through the skywalk with klaves, maracas, a cowbell. They use them when they perform "Feliz Navidad," Maison Oliver, 17, said.
He sings tenor in Maroon 16, and he's been a member since he was a sophomore. At first, it was tricky hitting his volume potential, he recalled. "It took me a long time to start singing out."
His junior year, he felt more confident and this year, it's natural, he said.
Kelly Killorin, 17, said the group's supportive and encouraging nature helps you gain confidence performing in a smaller group positioned closer to an audience than in a bigger choir.
They sang a selection from "Frozen," "Jingle Bells" and "Silent Night" with verses in German on Tuesday afternoon. And when they performed at the Holiday Center, people pooled on the main floor around art fair vendors, and they flocked to look down from the upper level. Passersby stopped to take photos.
Christenson hauled in and played a traveling piano that he set up on wooden legs during "I'll Be Home For Christmas."
You're definitely performing like you would in theater, Oliver said. You're telling stories with the music, adding tension, sadness and adjusting facial expressions.
And it had an effect.
"They started singing, I started singing," said vendor Ed Faller.
They used to host full choirs in the Holiday Center, said manager Barb Perrella. "That's important for our public school system to be doing."
Music is a way of gathering people, and caroling spreads Christmas cheer and helps you receive it, Christenson said. "You learn so many things about other people, other cultures, other ways of interacting and making music."
He was quick to introduce a brief history of their song selection at each skywalk stop.
Many of the added effects, the stomping, the instruments, even the group's name, are at the behest of the students. "The kids are so self-led and driven, and they're willing to roll with the punches," he said.
The Vizankos followed Maroon 16 to several stops; their great-niece was performing.
The show brought up a bundle of things for Jim Vizanko: "Growing up, Christmas service, church," he said.
It transported Kathy Vizanko to her childhood, too, and, she said, you need carols for that reason - to remember.
"It doesn't feel like Christmas without a concert."