Christmas Fest worth the time and effort

Christmas Fest is one of the most rewarding performance experiences available to student musicians at St. Olaf College. While it is stressful and demanding to fit in all of the requisite practice time, especially as finals begin to loom over us, the waves of feelings which wash over musicians as the lights dim at the end of “Beautiful Savior” is well worth the effort.

Christmas Fest consumes a lot of time, especially during performance week. We have a rehearsal on the Saturday following Thanksgiving (annoyingly forcing performers to return to campus early), one on Sunday (which usualy lasts four hours), an hour-long rehearsal on Monday, a full run-through on Wednesday and then performances from Thursday through Sunday. In short, after a weekend full of rehearsal, we perform the whole concert five nights in a row. Our schedule is both physically and emotionally taxing, from the stress on our voices to the fake happy smiles.

However,  the performance is an opportunity for musicians to showcase our talents and the hard work we have done. The opportunity that Christmas Fest provides is unique: there are only a few local adult choirs; most are either at churches or in the Twin Cities. Of these, the St. Olaf choral program offers the largest concerts with the biggest audiences and longest-running program. For a student, the St. Olaf choirs are not only the most rewarding but the easiest to participate in: fees are low, we don’t have to drive anywhere and we don’t have to perform every week (singing in church choirs can be a little tedious after a while).

Even though the St. Olaf choral program and Christmas Fest are their own rewards, there are those who say that participants should be remunerated for their efforts. I happen to disagree but will explore the possibilities of compensation. To begin, there are a lot of participants. According to St. Olaf’s website, there are 500 student musicians in every Christmas Fest concert (along with ushers, videographers, producers, security and more). To pay the musicians for the performances, assuming a nice, round number of $10 per hour and four, two-hour concerts, would cost $40,000. Not to mention students would need to be paid for the full run-through and all the rehearsing (which for simplicity I’ll reduce to 10 hours) as well. So, paying the student musicians for the time they put into Christmas Fest would cost $91,000 in total.

But what about a more reasonable offer – what if students who participated in Christmas Festival were exempt from their choir dues? Dues usually run about $20 per semester, or $10,000 for all 500 musicians (assuming St. Olaf would only cover fall semester dues). Given that tickets are $35 and 12,000 people attend (again, taken from St. Olaf’s website), the total revenue St. Olaf gets from Christmas Festival should be close to $420,000. Budgets for choral programs are typically pretty tight, but could the choral program afford just 2.4% of its ticket sales? Probably.

“There is a moment during most performances just after the last notes of ‘Beautiful Savior’ drift off and the lights begin to fade, but before the audience shows their appreciation, when all the performers and all the audience members act as one body and breathe together in anticipation.” – Simon Patmore-Zarcone ’21

So why doesn’t St. Olaf pay its musicians? There are two simple answers: they already do, and they don’t have to. Students on vocal scholarships have to participate in an ensemble as a condition of their scholarship, meaning students on scholarship are being “paid” to participate in the concert. If they didn’t, they would have to drop out of choir and lose the scholarship.

But the real reason St. Olaf doesn’t compensate musicians directly for their participation in Christmas Festival is that they don’t have to. Musicians can’t help themselves when presented with such a golden opportunity to perform. We feel accomplished: like athletes passing a test of strength and endurance with flying colors, musicians can feel the long hours they put into training and rehearsal have paid off. There is not one musician on the stage at Christmas Fest who does not genuinely love the music they make.

There is a moment during performances just after the last notes of “Beautiful Savior” drift off and the lights begin to fade, but before the audience shows their appreciation, when all the performers and audience members breathe together in anticipation. This moment is always short but its power is undeniable.

The moment forces us to reflect, to answer the question, what just happened?  For the audience, the answer is usually “Wow.” Performers, though, are reminded of all the love that has gone into the beautiful, ephemeral creation that is a concert – rehearsals we have had, the relationships we have built, mistakes we have made – and all the love that we pour into our craft, we get back.

We work so hard for Christmas Fest that we forget why we are singing in the first place. When the concert is over and we walk back up to campus through the night’s cold air, we remember we gave all that we did to our performance because we love singing. We smile, because we get to do it again the night after.

Simon Patmore-Zarcone ’21 ( is from Los Altos Hills, Calif. He majors in Economics and Philosophy.