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Competitive Caroling: Only top students make the cut at Burbank high school

Christmas Carolers - 1

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Junior Nick Nikoian, left, and seniors Annmarie Rizzo, John Cutone and Katie Butterworth of John Burroughs High School's vocal ensemble perform Christmas carols on Thursday, Dec. 19 at the Burbank Unified School District offices.

Christmas Carolers - 2

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Carolers from John Burroughs High School in Burbank meet together after performing on Thursday, Dec. 19. Choir teams at the school have won national awards including the National Show Choir Cup in 2013, 2008 and 2001.

Christmas Carolers - 3

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John Burroughs High School's vocal ensemble members Jennifer Katz, left, Nia Johnson, Alana Aimaq and Katie Butterworth get into a car on their way to a performance on Thursday, Dec. 19.

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Seniors Grant Laughlin, left and Jennifer Katz walk into the Burbank Unified School District Offices before a performance. Sixteen students make up the vocal ensemble at John Burroughs High School.

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The John Burroughs High School's vocal ensemble performs in their school's front office one day before winter break on Thursday, Dec. 19. The school's choir teams have appeared on Oprah, The Voice, Dancing with the Stars and other television shows.

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Senior Alana Aimaq, senior Grant Laughlin and sophomore Jeremy Moran perform at the Burbank Unified School District offices.

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Maya Sugarman/KPCC

John Burroughs High School choral director Brendan Jennings, left, and senior Jennifer Katz say goodbye to employees at the Burbank Unified School District offices on Thursday, Dec. 19 after a performance.

Since the early 1980s, caroling has been a holiday tradition at John Burroughs High School in Burbank.

The school is home to one of the top choir programs in the country and the yearly caroling troupe assembled by the school is culled from its best vocal musicians.

Making the cut is tough. Students are selected from more than 200 choral students.

"It's really difficult," said Brendan Jennings, the school's vocal music director and a former caroling student who sang for the school from 1996-2000. "We're looking for very specific things."

One requirement is that students excel at sight reading music so they can quickly adapt to new songs.

In recent years, caroling in Los Angeles has become a booming holiday industry, according to Jennings. His students earn the school's music program $3,000 to $4,000 a year doing caroling gigs — a group of them were paid to perform at pop star Joe Jonas' ugly sweater Christmas party recently.

Most of the money students earn is funneled back to students via scholarship funding.

"We get more requests than I can accept," Jennings said.

About 25 percent of the students' caroling performances are done for free. During a recent visit, students squeezed in a non-paid caroling performance at Burbank Unified's district office, before some of them dashed off to finish finals.

"I know it makes all of us feel good that we can spread the Christmas spirit to other people," said Nia Johnson, a senior dressed in a large Dickens' era skirt and bonnet. She's one of 16 students in the caroling group. 

Laura Strobl served as a chaperone for the students - her son is part of the caroling group. He's her third child to join the school's choir program.

"They're such a talented group of kids. They work really hard," she said. "It's a privilege on my part."

The school's choir students have performed on Oprah, The Voice and Dancing with the Stars, among other TV shows. A few of the students in the caroling group have agents. Many of them hope to make it as professional singers, while others enjoy caroling as a hobby.

"It's really great to just make people happy," said junior David Jurbala. This was his first year caroling - his family relocated from Hawaii and chose to move to Burbank in part because of the school's music program.  "It was a lot of fun."

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