by Alyssa Cowell, Catoctin School of Music
I happen to love holiday and Christmas music, and it is not just that the melodies are so classic and they conjure up wonderful old memories of enjoyable times growing up with my family and church in a rural Virginia farming community. What I’ve discovered as a piano teacher is the power of one of those old melodies to actually change a young life. It is so rewarding and quite fun to see an old melody create drive and passion from even my youngest student who dares to jump into a new song all the while contemplating “I think I can!”
A parent remarked to me the other day, have you ever considered how beautiful it is that we adults and kids still gravitate towards timeless melodies, and how they were actually created right out of thin air in one moment and then they are recognizable forever. In one minute they did not exist and then in another blink of time “blink” Twinkle, “blink” Ode to Joy, “blink” Jesu, “blink” Jingle Bells, and “blink” Joy to the World; they existed and now they are timeless and cherished classics known worldwide by almost every culture on every continent.
Christmas songs and carols contain many of these “blinks” or moments in time, and I find it is so interesting to use these well-known songs and melodies as bait for my students. Christmas melodies can usually hook the students and families from about the first moment I pull out the sheet music. Many of the timeless Christmas song melodies have a very strong melodic hook and rhythmic hook, and if you can find an interesting way to create patience and hope in the student at whatever experience level and age, in order to begin working efficiently through some of the difficulties of the more expansive melodic ranges and more interesting and challenging rhythms found within many of the Christmas songs, you can get the kids to enjoy their practicing even more. As a precursor, I start interjecting two handed scales with all of my newest students within four weeks of them starting lessons with me. Yes even my four and five year olds can play Joy to the World by memory about a month into their lesson and it’s easy and fun to do. Then when we get to Christmas melodies even the scariest of musical sections can be broken down into smaller scale fragments and this confidence and pre-learning make tackling new songs more fun, less involved and truthfully make new songs “not so scary anymore.”
The greatest part of using Christmas carols is that there is usually some previous memory associated with the song, like they are singing it in school, or at home or it has been playing on the radio. I try to go for the gold right in the beginning and pick Jingle Bells, Jolly old Saint Nicholas and Joy to the World, because it is highly likely these melodies are stashed up in the little auditory memory parts of their brains, just waiting to be pulled out and spun into fun and gold. And when a student struggles with the classic dotted quarter note in Away in a Manger or Hark the Herald Angels,” I find it so interesting to watch them notice that is the same rhythm that they basically just played beautifully all the way through “Silent Night” and then suddenly they aren’t overly dramatic anymore and can play all three tunes. I love Christmas melodies!
Most families enjoy carols being practiced and performed at home, so the student and I get some extra help and the students get an extra thumbs up at home and encouragement, which hopefully will continue to spill into the new year and afterwards. Moms and dads know the melodies (al la the Suzuki method) and can actually help point out errors at home and create effective ways of working on the hard passages at home, and this oftentimes creates conversations again in our next lesson with the parents asking for teaching and coaching advice for home. Christmas songs are fun because there is a goal in mind, as there will soon be family Christmas music concerts coming up where you play for neighbors, parties, incoming family, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandma. And there are goals to be met every week, just like when we prepare for a recital, so now there is more practice going on at home and there is an expectation of performing preparatory mini concerts at home and in my studio (for other students) all in preparation for the BIG family concerts coming right at Christmas.
Yes, I love teaching Christmas music.