Nov. 24—LEDYARD — Andrea Barbour was in the first group of Ledyard Carolers at the high school, and when she became a music teacher at Ledyard Center School, one of her students was Melanie Cometa.
When Cometa was in high school, she became a Ledyard Caroler under the direction of Russ Hammond, and in 2017, she became director of the group.
Now, Ledyard Carolers are celebrating their 50th season.
Over these 50 years, community members may have seen the Carolers at the Downtown Mystic Holiday Stroll, Olde Mistick Village, Crystal Mall, the Ledyard Grange, a restaurant, a nursing home, a church, or the Nathan Lester House ― a gig that senior Sarina Barnes said is particularly special because it's in Ledyard.
Cometa said the Carolers are doing roughly 30 performances this December — including four in one day.
"The Caroler season is not for the faint of heart. It's really hard. It's like the hardest three weeks in show biz," she said. Cometa has pictures of students sleeping in cars, using their capes as blankets.
The season kicks off with the Holiday Lighted Boat Parade in Mystic, and senior Dan Krupansky recalled a funny story from this event last year: They were supposed to start singing, but their director hadn't shown up yet.
Cometa said she had repeatedly gotten stuck in drawbridge traffic trying to find a place to park, and she ended up calling a parent to meet her at S&P Oyster to take her car.
Senior Lucas Crowe said the ensemble is unique among Ledyard choral groups because of how much time students spend together over such a short period, and this was a catalyst to bringing him closer to fellow singers.
Adelle Olexy said she had known about the Carolers since she was in elementary school. The group sang there and she was in awe, thinking, "I want to be them one day."
Cometa said the Carolers have a repertoire of about 25 pieces, and a lot are the same songs she was singing in 2003 and 2004.
Celebrating 50 years
A Ledyard Carolers 50th Season Celebration Feast is taking place at Ledyard High School on Dec. 17, with tickets available for purchase until Dec. 3 at ledyardmusic.com.
Alumni Carolers are invited to the high school from 10 to 11:30 a.m. "to connect, reminisce, and sing a few carols together to prepare for the Alumni Sing at the Celebration Feast." The feast, which is $40 per person and includes a multi-course meal from Rustic Boutique Catering, will also include a performance from current Carolers.
The group also has new capes this year to celebrate the milestone.
The Ledyard Carolers began in 1973 with director Barbara Shulze. Andrea Barbour joined that year as a sophomore and recalled in the early days, the girls brought corduroy fabric to make their own skirts, jackets and hand muffs. She said while they sang a few secular songs, the repertoire was heavier on hymns than it is today.
When Barbour was an elementary school teacher, a highlight was seeing her former students performing with Ledyard Carolers. And she was sometimes "floored" at who ended up joining.
Connie Dutton became the choral director when Barbour was a senior, and from 1987 to 2001, the director was Jamie Spillane, who is now director of choirs at the University of Connecticut and continues to lead the Mystic Seaport Community Carol Sing.
"The Ledyard Carolers is one of those gifts to southeastern Connecticut. It's a constant that has run since the 70s and goes out into the community every year and makes such a difference celebrating the season," Spillane said. He added, "I think they're as strong now as they've ever been, and the quality is just better and better each year."
Spillane said under his tenure, the attire changed and the number of performances increased dramatically, going from about six to 22.
It was also under Spillane that the Ledyard Carolers started doing what has now become a standard and a crowd favorite: "Christmas Soup," a comedic riff on "The Twelve Days of Christmas" in which singers come in on the wrong days and throw in a few other holiday songs. He got it from the Stanford Fleet Street Singers, a comedy a cappella group from Stanford University.
This is the favorite of some students, including senior Brooke Grant, who said it's "just a really awesome song to perform ... There's so much energy that comes with it, and I get to quack at the end of it."
Cometa said she came from a generation when "In the First Light" was a favorite, and that's what Russ Hammond recalled students saying. Hammond, who was director from 2001 to 2016 and is good friends with Spillane, confessed that he never liked "Christmas Soup."
"It's really funny the first time you hear it. But by the 16th year, I'm kind of turning around thinking, 'Don't you guys know what we're going to do?' But people always loved it. It didn't matter," he said with a laugh.
One thing Hammond started doing was bringing his students to New York City for what he called "guerilla caroling."
"We'd go in front of the Rockefeller Christmas tree and set up shop and sing a few songs, and then they'd tell us to leave, and then we'd go someplace else and sing," he said.
Hammond also started the Junior Carolers program, in which elementary students joined for part of the holiday choral concert.
One of the most dramatic changes for the Carolers was the virtual year in 2020. Dan Krupansky said this involved going to the library after school, sitting in front of a camera, and mouthing along the words to a recording he had done at home.
As Cometa shared Ledyard Carolers memories last week, a few students giggled knowingly when she described herself as "an emotional person."
Sure enough, she was soon tearing up as she commented, "Sometimes when I'm rehearsing, I can almost hear the ghosts of my friends and people I look up to in that room."