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Holiday Music!

Why, When and How Much


· Practical Pedagogy

Written by Kristin Yost and Todd Van Kekerix

For families that celebrate Christmas, this is one of THE BEST times of the year for practice (if you do it right.) Here's how we do it at the Centre for Musical Minds!

WHY: Familiar music motivates students to learn. All of a sudden the process of learning new music isn't as tedious and students are far more willing to do the work of being challenged, without it feeling like work. It's imperative you ask first however, if the family celebrates Christmas! Remember to be respectful to those that may not, and also to celebrate the "Christ" part of Christmas with your families that do. Even if you have students that don't celebrate Christmas, there are still ways you can incorporate the cultural music that is all around us in the weeks leading up to December 25th. Santa, Snow and Bells come to mind! If this is the case, you can then use this time as an opportunity to explore something else that maybe you have tabled for a while.

SEASON: The season for Christmas music in lessons should be about 5-6 weeks. It's long enough to learn meaningful and motivating music, but not too long where the students (families and teachers) get tired of it.

WHEN: NO Holiday music should be given out before the week of halloween! If you are needing a longer runway, that most likely means you have chosen music that is too difficult or the arrangement isn't very inspiring to the student. If the music can't be learned and polished in 2-3 weeks, it's too difficult.

HOW MANY PIECES? ALL students should have a minimum of 3 songs they learn (or relearn) for the season. For elementary, try for 10! It's a good idea find a mix of 2-3 more challenging (but accessible) songs, and then perhaps revisiting one or two from the year before that they can put right back under their fingers. Consider then adding in some easier ones that they can learn and polish in 2 or so weeks. This time of year is a PERFECT opportunity to sight-read, and/or add in some LH to read off of lead sheets, etc... If you are leveling correctly, there is no reason why this number of songs/pieces can't happen.

Bottom line: The songs should be familiar, fun, mostly what the student chooses and easily accessible. Don't fool yourself into thinking they'll love Silent Night as much as you, so check in with the parents to see which carols are their favorite or meaningful to their family members.

*Tip: It's important not to front-load the calendar with too many new pieces in the first week or two of the season, even if they are fun and chosen by the student. Spread them out over the 5-6 week season. Pull in some review/favorite holiday songs from the year before around weeks 1/2 and 4, to fill out their holiday 'set list'.

LEVEL: I touched on it above, but consider going down a level with about half of the pieces you assign, in order to increase the volume. How awesome would it be for them to be able to play a whole 'playlist' of Christmas songs for their family and friends?? Don't be afraid to pull in lead sheets of the super fun songs that they probably request and might be challenging to find arrangements of that can be read. Consider LH single notes, 5ths and octaves. No chord symbols? It's pretty easy to write them in! It's also a great way to reinforce theory, technique and teaching a lot of great functional piano skills.

GOAL: To bring a meaningful experience into the lives of each of our students. If Christmas is meaningful to your student and her/his family, then what better way to truly give the gift of music, than by guiding and teaching music that speaks to your students?

Some of Kristin and Todd's favorite teaching books:

  • Wendy Stevens has fabulous arrangements! In particular, her Carol of the Bells for Intermediate students is PHENOMENAL. My all-time favorite, seriously! 
  • Melody Bober's Grand Solos for Christmas are fantastic. She also has a fantastic Christmas Memories (Book 3) that I absolutely love for late intermediate/early advanced students (or yourself.)
  • Faber's BigTime Christmas Level 4 is basically my favorite teaching book ever for that level. The other levels are good too. 
  • Mark Hayes is awesome for advanced students, or yourself! 
  • McLean and Olson's In Recital with Popular Christmas Music, all levels, are fantastic for student
  • Robert Vandall Christmas Duet Favorites, Level 5-6, teacher/student or two students who are at equal levels. 
  • Time to Begin/Beginning Students: Construct your own using a partial staff. Jingle Bells or Deck the Halls. 
What are some of your favorites?