The Night Before Christmas

This year my piano students have been absolutely mad keen on learning Christmas carols. Not so much keen to work on them in the lesson, but enthusiastic to the extreme about having sheet music they can easily read to produce a performance of some of their favourite Christmas songs. I’ve been under serious pressure to get the right books in for each of these students – in time for them to be able to play at least one or two Christmas tunes with family and friends in the lead-up to Christmas.

Jingle Bells is the clear winner in the popularity stakes, but We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Silent Night and Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer have also been excitedly greeted by students flicking through their new Christmas collections.

Now, I have no idea whether my students really did end up playing these songs for their families at Christmas. My own family has a tradition of hosting a back-yard carols-by-candlelight each year, with forty to fifty friends and family in attendance, my brother-in-law leading the singing, me on the piano, and the kids (my own, my sister’s, the children of our friends and family) each having a role to play in the evening’s proceedings, either singing a verse of a Christmas carol as a solo, or playing an instrument, or reciting a poem or telling a story. Every child gets to be a part of it.

Santa Claus visits each year, and the faces of the children are always lit up with the wonder that is a whitely-bearded man, unseasonably dressed (we’re always worried he’ll pass out from heat-stroke), handing out presents and pretending reindeer are parked down the road waiting to take him back to the North Pole.

That’s what Christmas is, to me: magic, music, and children. It’s about family and about community, sharing, nurturing and celebrating, through food (so much food!) and through music.

My seven year old son shocked us all, the other night, at our backyard carols, when he insisted on accompanying us while we sang Deck the Halls. I got booted off the piano, and Tom took over. He’d never properly practiced it but he’s not at all shabby playing by ear, and so the delighted backyard assembly sang along to Tom’s unrehearsed rendition, and it all went surprisingly well. That’s Christmas.

The ten year old daughter of friends down the road volunteered to perform with her younger brother – they sang a Christmas song she’d composed just the day before. It was fantastic! Who knew Olivia was a song-writer?! She’s been taking piano lessons this year, but they sang a cappella, and it was perfect. That’s Christmas.

Ethan, the five year old son of a cousin of mine, was next – he suddenly wanted to share an action poem he’d learned about five lonely Christmas trees. Rhythmic, choreographed, and spoken with an insanely adorable lisp – his contribution was spontaneous, unscheduled, and we were spell-bound. That is Christmas.

This whole holiday season it has never occurred to me to encourage the children in my life, students, neighbours, relatives, to practice. Why would you?

Practicing is something you do to get ready, and this is the time of year is when all that preparation bears fruit. This is the time for playing along with the singing, for sharing the music that is within you, for knowing that your contribution is valued because it’s yours, not because it could score high marks in an exam, first place in a competition, thousands of views/shares/likes on social media platforms.

It is vital for us, as music educators, to demonstrate to our students that there are seasons to our practicing. Not every day is for arpeggios and metronomes and sonatinas and etudes. Some days are holy days – days where our musicianship is about our connection to others, not our devotion to the practice room.

There are teachers out there who see Christmas as an interruption to the true meaning of piano lessons, and for you I have just this to say: these times of connection to our communities are the essence of musicianship.

The everyday practice days will roll around again soon enough. Learning to be a better musician while also learning to be a better person should always be our goal. Take these days to practice being a part of (not apart from) the human race – this is what Christmas has always truly been about.

8 thoughts on “The Night Before Christmas

  1. What a lovely post – thanks Elissa! Two thoughts – I have long thought that ‘the Christmas Carol’ effect, whereby students get really enthused about learning to play carols and songs that friends and family know, is something that we should really take on board and see how to transfer into the entire year. Secondly, I talk to my pupils about the 3 Ps of piano playing: practising, playing and performing. All have equal value but somehow the middle one ‘play’ often gets swamped by practice and performance.

  2. Sounds like your place is the place to be at Christmas! Thanks for the article, Elissa. I’ve actually found the opposite recently: children don’t seem to know carols as well as they did, or they only know a couple when I remember knowing just about all of them when I was young. I’ve found there isn’t much interest, but then again, I totally forgot to push it in my studio as the year was ending. Something to consider for next year!

    • I think the age of the students comes into it a lot (once they are at high school there’s less interest, in my experience), but yes – the religious carols are almost entirely unknown!!! Definitely a generational shift has taken place in regard to Christmas music!

  3. Good post! I tell my students that one of their most significant goals should be to share their music. To this end, we have 2 recitals each year. As music teachers, we are helping our students to learn a language, and isn’t the goal of learning a language to communicate with others? Christmas songs are awesome for this purpose due to their catchy, near-universal appeal.

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