CLEMMONS the magazine
Musical Cheer – Caroling group has been spreading Christmas spirit for 16 years
Written by Lynn Hall
Picture a Christmas tree just after you bring it home. It’s daylight and you begin by adding strings of unlit colored lights. Next you add colorful balls and an assortment of decorations, and the tree begins to take shape. Buts it’s only when it’s dark and you turn on the lights for the very first time that what you see is the magic of Christmas in beautiful perfection.
That’s the way I feel about the sound of a quartet singing four-part harmony a cappella. Each individual voice is beautiful, but when blended together in harmony, I want to close my eyes and float on a cloud of musical perfection.
That’s why listening to a group of Clemmons residents, better known as “The Carolers of Christmas Past” is such a treat, and for the last 16 years, they have been sharing their musical gifts with people all over Forsyth County, the state, and even at the White House.
The group, which includes Nate Pendley, Jennifer Jordan and Dennis and Lisa Ramsey will begin their 17th season with an engagement at Reynolda Village on the Saturday before Thanksgiving this coming November. They gathered recently for a rehearsal and to talk about their lengthy collaboration.
“It started in 2001,” Nate Pendley explains. “I was asked by the Davie County Arts Council to do a version of A Christmas Carol for the holidays. I wanted to jazz it up a bit a decided to see if I could put together a quartet.”
Nate said he’d met Jennifer doing musical theater in Lewisville and Mocksville and called to see if she would be interested. “I asked if she might know an alto and a bass to round out the quartet, and she said she did.”
Jennifer had moved to Clemmons in 1995 and met Dennis and Lisa at church. “We sang together in the choir. They were interested and the four of us got together.”
One of the similarities among the four was that they had all grown up in musical homes. “We sang a lot,” Nate said, adding that he’d had no formal training, but learned by doing. He carried on that same tradition in his own home with his children.
Lisa and Jennifer also agreed that music was big part of their lives growing up as well. “I played the piano and thought of myself as more of a musician than a singer, but I sang in choirs at school and church,” Lisa said. Jennifer said her family moved a great deal and it wasn’t until about fifth grade that she was able to participate in school and church choirs. “I loved music and later went on to sing solo and in ensemble groups and even was lead singer for a rock band for a time.”
Dennis said his siblings and his parents sang all of the time and some were musicians. “It wasn’t unusual for us to visit a church and notice in the bulletin a listing for ‘Special Music’ during the service. My mother would lean over to us and tell us to pick out a song from the hymnal—we were the special music.”
Jennifer sings soprano for the Carolers, while Lisa sings alto—the harmony. “We sometimes joke that Lisa couldn’t sing the melody if she had to,” Jennifer says laughing.
“She just always does harmony.”
Nate sings tenor and Dennis bass, but because both are baritones, they can switch parts if needed. “It also helps because there have been a few occasions when one of us couldn’t perform and the others can make it work as a trio.”
“Like the time I lost my voice for a week,” Dennis adds.
Because of the schedule the group maintains during the holidays, they all try to keep their voices in shape by singing year-round. Dennis and Lisa sing in a local ensemble and Nate also performs with a local barbershop quartet.
Over the years the group has amassed a repertoire of more than 70 songs, including classic European carols, traditional American standards and carols, children’s favorites and some novelty selections. “Each year we add several new songs based on ones we like or songs that people have requested of us the previous year,” Nate notes.
The group begins to rehearse in August in preparation of the holiday season which begins at Thanksgiving.
“That’s also when we begin opening the calendar for new bookings,” Jennifer explains. “Many of our bookings are with repeat clients—people like Forsyth Country Club, which hires us every year. Those places usually tell us to hold the same date for the coming year when we are packing up to leave. I email those groups in August to confirm dates and then we begin to advertise for new events.”
Last year they performed some 25 events in the four weeks leading up to Christmas.
“It can be a grueling schedule,” Dennis notes. “Some weeks we perform three or four days in a row and others, we are going from one event to the next in a matter of hours.”
In previous years, the group also performed at the White House, the first time in 2001 when they’d just formed and the second was during the Obama’s first Christmas in office.
“We were part of the warm-up to the celebrity-filled entertainment,” Dennis explains. We were there with some big names, one of which was the Irish group, Celtic Woman. They are amazing and I was in awe, but after we performed, they came up to talk to us.”
One of the group’s favorite annual events is the Dickens Festival in Roanoke, VA. “It’s an elaborate event with lots of activities and we really enjoy being there and being a part of it,” Jennifer adds.
This is a perfect event for the Carolers of Christmas Past because of their costumes. “We dress in Victorian-style clothing, which is something that always draws attention,” Nate says. Jennifer made the women’s dresses and did a lot of research on all of their costumes to make sure they were as authentic as possible.
“People come up to us all the time and ask where we got our dresses,” Jennifer adds. “I tell them I made them because it’s not something you can pick up at Dillard’s.” The first dress Jennifer made for herself used seven yards of material. “The downside is that they weigh a lot and are restrictive. My first dress hooked up the back and if another family member wasn’t home, I couldn’t get in it. I made a second for that reason. It’s very restrictive and I can only lift my arms so high and have to sit up very straight. The hooped skirt is 11 feet around at the bottom. After a long day of performing, it’s nice to get into something more comfortable.”
The costume restrictions also dictate what vehicle the group uses to travel from one event to the next. “We get some funny looks when we have to change into costumes at work because we are leaving from there to go to a booking,” Dennis adds.
Another of the group’s favorite type of event is performing at retirement communities. “We have had some of our most memorable moments in assisted living facilities and memory care units,” Dennis said.
“It’s being able to interact with the residents,” Jennifer agreed. “We don’t just go in and sing. We try to engage with people listening to the music. I remember one woman who kept her head down the entire time we sang, but when I went over to her and knelt down to see if she would make eye contact, she glanced up and said ‘thank you for coming.’”
Another time the group was singing and an elderly man was conducting while they performed. He’d been a choir director. “He was surrounded by his family and at one point we noticed they left the room,” Dennis said. “We didn’t know why, but later Nate asked them, and it turned out the man had not been able to recognize any of his family members for a long time, but while we were singing, he looked up a called a family member by name. They’d been completely overwhelmed by it.”
It’s those kinds of stories that the group remembers best, and feel grateful that what they are doing has made a difference in some lives.
While their love of music brought the group together, it’s a shared friendship and respect that’s kept the group together for so long. “We are very lucky to have found each other,” Dennis says. Jennifer agrees. “We complement each other. We know what we’re all capable of and can cue off each other.”
Nate says he knows other groups that hold auditions each year for members so there is a lot of rotating in of new people. “I can’t imagine how that works. Because we know each other so well, it makes working together so much easier. We start rehearsals again and it’s easy to get back into that rhythm. I also think that overall that sort of comfort and compatibility makes us a much better sounding quartet.”
“Sometimes it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed when you are singing and see people in the room start to cry,” Lisa adds. “Music connects people and it’s very rewarding.”
All four of the group members said being able to do what they’ve done for so long has been a “real blessing.”
“For me, it’s a time to share my faith through music,” Lisa says, and Jennifer adds, “It’s a time to connect with people and engage them. To touch them in a meaningful way, and to be given something back in return.”
That night, sitting and talking around the kitchen table in Jennifer’s home, the group offers to sing as the interview concludes. “What’s your favorite Christmas song?” Nate asks.
“I Wonder as I Wander,” I reply, and they stood in front of me and sang, carrying me away on that cloud of musical perfection. The Christmas season started early for me this year with this amazing gift from four very talented individuals.
November 27, 2009
Building Spirit with Song: Clemmons quartet to sing before lighting of National Christmas Tree
By Tim Clodfelter | Journal Reporter
An a cappella quartet from Clemmons will be among those serenading visitors to this year's lighting of the National Christmas Tree.
The quartet, Carolers of Christmas Past, has been selected to be part of the preshow entertainment at the lighting ceremony, which will be next Thursday in Washington.
"We'll be singing for a full hour before the show to entertain people as they arrive," group member Jennifer Jordan said.
The group -- Jordan, Nate Pendley, Dennis Ramsey and Lisa Ramsey -- was formed in 2001, and it performs in traditional Dickens-era garb. Jordan is the group's costumer. "I did some serious research on costuming from that time period," she said. "We've tried to stay as true to the actual costuming of the mid-1800s as possible."
Carolers of Christmas Past performs 10 or more times each holiday season, mostly at corporate events and private parties. It has a repertoire of more than 70 songs, from traditional hymns to more-recent favorites, such as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Santa Baby."
They have performed at NorthCarolina's governor's mansion, the Dickens of a Christmas Festival in Roanoke, and various local venues. This is the singers' second time performing at the Ellipse, where the National Christmas Tree is displayed, but their first time to be part of the lighting ceremony.
The National Park Foundation organizes the ceremony. In choosing musicians, it looks for "something that will add to the overall color and character of the event," said Mark Shields, a spokesman for the foundation.
Nine musical acts are selected to perform for guests as they arrive and prepare for the lighting ceremony.
"It helps build the spirit of the moment," Shields added.
"We think it's an amazing honor to be chosen," Jordan said. "This is a huge national event. We've been told there could be 10,000 people there."
The main entertainment at the ceremony will include entertainers Sheryl Crow, Common and Celtic Woman. The ceremony is being taped and highlights (not including the preshow) will be broadcast Dec. 20 on UNC TV. The lighting ceremony will be streamed on the Internet at www.thenationaltree.org starting at 5 p.m. next Thursday Dec. 3.
In Winston-Salem, Carolers of Christmas Past will perform Dec. 5 at Reynolda Village from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. as part of the "Holiday Stroll," and Dec. 22 at the Millennium Center.
Forsyth Family Magazine
Carolers of Christmas Past Wish You a Merry Little Christmas
By Carolyn S. Peterson
For the past 7 years, the crisp winter air has been filled with the songs of Christmases past by the Carolers of Christmas Past. This four part harmony group with members Nate Pendley, Jennifer Jordan, Dennis Ramsey, and Lisa Ramsey, all residents of Clemmons, was established by Pendley as a way to give a little pizzazz to a reading of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. "For Nate, his idea of adding a feel of Christmas past was to add carolers in full-period costumes to local holiday celebrations. After hatching his idea, he called me first because we had appeared together in a local production of The Sound of Music. I brought the Ramseys into the group and the quartet was born," recalled Jennifer Jordan, full-time mom of three, homeschooler, and business manager for the Carolers of Christmas Past, and chief costume seamstress. Each member of the quartet has a life outside of their Dickens' personas: Nate Pendley is an attorney, Dennis Ramsey is a programmer, and Lisa Ramsey, who arranges some of the quartet's music, is a full-time mom and homeschooler, like Jennifer Jordan.
Sharing Holiday Cheer for All Ages
As they enter their 8th season, Carolers of Christmas Past perform throughout the area at country clubs, private parties, nursing homes, Reynola Village and Dickens of a Christmas Festival in Roanoke, VA, just to list a few of their venues. "It's a delight to bring so much joy to so many people with our music. From the wide eyes of the children who can't pull their stare away from our costumes and are thrilled to hear their favorite Christmas song, to the older gentleman who, one year, began to cry as he heard 'I'll Be Home for Christmas;' it's quite a thrill to do something that you love and to have that kind of impact on people," stated Jordan.
With over 70 songs in their repertoire, the Carolers of Christmas Past sing Old World carols and modern Christmas songs, from religious to secular. Paired with beautiful songs of yesteryear are costumes reminiscent of the mid-1800s. "A great deal of research went into the costumes and they were custom made using authentic patterns. Nate's hat is an antique beaver top hat. Dennis and Nate's ties are embroidered silk and Lisa and I wear poke bonnets and hoop skirts. We add elegant wool cloaks for outdoor performances, " commented Jordan.
As the season wears on and the wind gets a little nippier, Carolers of Christmas Past will be sharing their songs and reflections of simpler times, brightening everyone's holiday and wishing you a "Merry Little Christmas."
For information on Carolers of Christmas Past scheduled appearances, or to check on their availability for your holiday gathering, visit www.CarolersOfChristmasPast.com or contact Jennifer Jordan at CarolersOfChristmasPast@gmail.com.
December 7, 2006
Season is in full sing for four performers
By Denise Kasper
What started as a way to “jazz” up a reading of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has become a holiday tradition.
Five years ago, in preparation for a reading at the Davie County Community Arts Council, Jennifer Jordan, Nate Pendley, Dennis Ramsey and Lisa Ramsey formed a Dickens’ era choral group. They are now marking their sixth season and are in more demand than ever.
“It is just incredible fun,” Lisa Ramsey said. “Musically, it’s fun to do. It’s a high level of music—not just singing songs from a hymn book.”
Ramsey and her husband, Dennis, both music majors in college, said that singing together is also great quality time they get to spend together after being together for 21 years.
The group, the Carolers of Christmas Past, has a repertoire of songs that has swelled to 70 carols, and they meet weekly starting in September to rehearse.
In 2001, they performed at the White House at the outdoor stage next to the national Christmas tree as part of the Christmas Pageant of Peace—a month long musical celebration held on the White House grounds.
A polished collaboration
Pendley, a tenor, is credited with starting the group, joining efforts with Jordan, a soprano. Jordan, who knew the Ramseys from church, was well aware of their advanced musical talent. Because they were an alto and a baritone, they rounded the ensemble perfectly.
But this is not just four friends singing some Christmas music. This is a collaboration of accomplished musicians singing complicated music. And to make it as authentic as possible, they are fully clad in mostly handmade period costumes.
The pieces they perform, mostly from the Victorian era, include the traditional English carol “Wassail Song” and “The Coventry Carol,” which dates back to the 14th century. There are also some holiday classics such as “Frosty the Snowman” mixed in.
They have developed somewhat of a following, and often get booked a year in advance. They can be found as the main event at holiday parties for doctors’ groups, country club Christmas celebrations and are a staple at the annual Reynolda Village Holiday Hop, which was held last week.
The wow factor
Not just a local sensation, they also travel to Roanoke, VA for the Dickens Festival every year.
Lisa Ramsey said that it is truly enjoyable to be so well accepted by audiences of all ages. Jordan said that the period costumes, complete with wool cloaks and an authentic beaver hat—add drama.
“There is definitely a “Wow” factor,” she said. For at least one reason, Jordan is grateful for some modern conveniences. Full dressed in her costume, complete with an 11-foot hoop slip, she can fit only in a minivan.
The group charges about $250 and hour and performs at private parties and bigger events. They see this as a great way to earn some extra Christmas-shopping money. They put on a benefit for Katrina victims last year that raised about $700 for two families who moved here after the hurricane.
With such a growing fan base, they are considering making a compact disc of their music, but haven’t set a release date.
The Clemmons Courier
January 10, 2002
Carolers of Christmas Past sing at White House ‘Pageant of Peace’
A local quartet had an eventful Christmas holiday—singing at the White House for the “Pageant of Peace.”
The quartet, The Carolers of Christmas Past includes Dennis and Lisa Ramsey, Jennifer Jordan, and Nate Pendley, all from the Clemmons area.
According to Pendley, the group attempts to recreate the spirit and sound of 19th century Victorian England by singing the traditional Christmas carols of the Charles Dickens era in classic four part harmony while dressed in costumes authentic to the period.
The trip to D.C. began in August when groups interested in performing were asked to submit performance biographies, an audition tape, a proposed song list and photographs.
The local singers were notified in November that they had been selected as one of four groups to perform.
“We were ecstatic and honestly a little bit surprised to learn we had been selected from all those who applied,” said Lisa Ramsey, the group’s alto. “Especially since we’ve only been singing together as a group since the spring. But it’s a great reward after all of the hard work.”
Pendley and Jordan had become acquainted while performing together in the Davie County production of The Sound of Music in the spring last year. When he decided to pursue a “Victorian” quartet, he contacted Jordan.
He had been asked to direct and narrate a performance of Charles Dickens’ book A Christmas Carol for production this past December. He initially conceived of a Victorian-attired quartet of carolers as a way of enlivening the production.
“I knew it was asking a lot, because my costuming along was going to cost in excess of a thousand dollars,” Pendley said. “You can’t just pick up a beaver top hat for 10 buck at a yard sale. I suggested that if what we put together for A Christmas Carol was good enough, there might also be a market for the group to hire itself out for private Christmas parties and the like to recoup our expenses and even turn a profit.”
Jordan had performed with the Ramseys a few years previous when they were attending the same church and thought they would be a good fit musically. “They both had college degrees in music and sang very well,” Jordan said. “I had confidence in my own musical abilities, and from having worked with Nate I knew he had one of those fabulous voices that can pull off just about anything. I really thought that with a good effort this group could make the concept work. And I think we did.”
The group booked nearly 20 public and private performances during the holidays, including singing at the Governor’s Mansion.
December 6, 2001
Singers from Clemmons have date to perform at pageant in Washington
By Denise Kasper
CLEMMONS—Getting into the holiday spirit and finding an outlet for their musical talent has four Clemmons residents stepping back in time 150 years.
Jennifer Jordan, Nate Pendley, Dennis Ramsey and Lisa Ramsey make up the Dickens-era choral group called Carolers of Christmas Past. Just months after the foursome got together in July, their journey is leading them north to President’s Park in Washington, D.C.
On December 23, the quartet will perform at the White House at the outdoor stage next to the national Christmas tree as part of the Christmas Pageant of Peace—a month-long musical celebration held on the White House grounds. The pageant is one of the few events held at the White House that will be open to the public this holiday season.
Pendley, a Republican lawyer, used some of his contacts at Sen. Jesse Helms’ office to get the gig at the White House. He had formed the group after he was asked to perform this year at a reading of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol for the Davie County Community Arts Council.
“I wanted to add some pizzazz to the reading,” he said. His idea of pizzazz was a four-part harmony of carolers clad in full-period costume. After hatching the idea, his first phone call was to his friend and musical colleague, Jordan. The two singers became acquainted when they appeared together in a local production of The Sound of Music.
Jordan then brought in the husband and wife team of the Ramseys, and the quartet was born. This fab four, however, didn’t meld together right away. All four are accomplished musicians and wanted to make sure their collaboration would work.
“We were concerned about being good,” Pendley said. “We wanted high quality, and this is difficult music.”
Their repertoire includes such traditional works as The Wassail Song and The Coventry Carol, which dates back to the 15th century. There are also some more modern holiday classics such as Frosty the Snowman, mixed in.
“It’s just a great outlet—musically,” Jordan said. “There aren’t too many opportunities to sing challenging music like this. Plus, being able to make some extra money at this was also appealing.”
The group charges about $250 an hour to perform, but can be seen for free at the Holiday Gallery Hop on Friday from 7 to 10 p.m. in downtown Winston-Salem. The event is hosted by the Downtown Arts District Association and encourages people to come to the arts district along Trade Street and “hop” in and out of the 25 galleries, artist studios and shops open for the evening. There will also be carriage rides, refreshments and crafts’ street vendors.
Back in July when the group got started, the members practiced about once every three weeks, but now, in the height of the Christmas season, they try to get together two or three time a week. Helping each other master this century-old music is just part of the work spent making their performances come off with authenticity. Using research gathered on the Internet and from craft and fabric stores, Jordan fashioned their elaborate costumes herself. Her latest creations were striking wool cloaks that will come in handy for the outdoor performance at the White House.
What makes their efforts even more notable is how the group makes time to practice and perform, because between the three families, there are 11 children. As the group sets up in the music room of Jordan’s home, some of the children can be heard playing in the next room.
“It’s just been a great experience for us,” Jordan said.