There’s plenty of high-quality choral music available for the holiday season. A large work such as Pinkham’s “Christmas Cantata” or Britten’s “Ceremony of Carol” offers tremendous educational value and can keep students engaged for months. There are also many, many shorter works that are true musical gems.
While these aforementioned pieces are wonderful repertoire, it is likely that the main purpose of learning these pieces would be for the appreciation of our singers, not for its seasonal value; even though such pieces are high-quality holiday works, the typical audience members at a traditional public high school, consisting mainly of parents, will likely not find an emotional connection between these selections and their present day holiday season.
I’m not proclaiming we should be making our educational choices to suit our parents’ taste; I’m also not here to say we shouldn’t be performing high-quality holiday works as part of our Winter Concert. I do, however, believe one purpose and benefit to choosing holiday music is to build a connection between our singers and our audience.
Some choral directors may be against the idea of playing toward our audience, but I feel it is part of our job; with any audience, I believe we should engage, educate, and entertain. When we choose holiday “favorites”, pieces that the audience has a sense of cultural connection to, we immediately engage and entertain them; from there, we have plenty of non-holiday music and/or significant choral holiday works that embrace a deeper educational component.
So this brings me to my choice to program the same exact holiday music, year after year. Why would I do this? Aren’t the students bored? Aren’t the parents annoyed?
The answer is “NO”. They all love it.
Here are the 8 reasons why I choose to program the same holiday music every year (and everyone loves it):
1. It ensures a well-balanced program
It’s important, when teaching at a public high school, that Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa are fairly represented. For me, I’m focused on including everyone more than equality of all holidays. By repeating the same holiday pieces annually, I’ve ensured that different cultures and holidays are warmly embraced within my community.
Alternative Concert Assignment – what to do when they miss the concert
2. It is a welcoming way to invite the alumni back, year after year
As I stated in 10 Reasons to Retire the Hallelujah Chorus..especially with alumni!, I believe we can choose more successful traditional choices for our alumni to sing than the Hallelujah Chorus; by singing culturally seasonal music, our former students will be motivated to join us for our seasonal performance. By repeating the same songs year after year, they are quite likely to remember the lyrics and vocal lines, and they will not need to warm-up prior to the performance.
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3. It ensures we always sing well-written and creative arrangements
While there are countless high-quality Christmas arrangements, there are far less Hanukkah arrangements, and even less quality pieces that represent Kwanzaa. I don’t want to be stuck teaching arrangements or using texts that are sub-par out of fear of repeating music. Between my two ensembles, treble and mixed choir, I have a total of six, maybe seven, creative holiday pieces that are performed annually. These pieces balance my program and are sprinkled throughout the evening.
4. I hate killing off pieces after the New Year
I prefer to spend the majority of rehearsal time focused on multi-purpose repertoire: music that is not limited to a specific season or event. My philosophy is to create high-quality, yet attainable recurring music for holidays or events in order to minimize the time spent on these events while maximizing their impact; this way, music learned in early September can be maintained throughout the year and used on performance tours or festivals as late as April or May. Along those same lines, I’m careful to limit the amount of repertoire that mentions “winter, snow, or cold” to 2-3 maximum as well for those same reasons.
5. It minimizes the amount of time we need to devote toward learning holiday music
In my choirs, there’s no Christmas in October. We begin our holiday music the day before Thanksgiving; the final rehearsal before Thanksgiving is what we call our “alumni hour”, where our alumni are invited to join us for one daytime rehearsal. At this rehearsal, we reintroduce all of our holiday music as our alumni and upperclassmen take the lead and bring their enthusiasm, warmth, and connection into their singing.
6. It builds a sense of tradition
Repetition leads to tradition, but only after everyone has bought in. I always make it a point to explain the tradition and backstory of every piece, how each piece came into our repertoire and what makes it so special. Each holiday piece that I have added over the years has been one that was loved by the students; essentially, each piece repeated for the very first time because so many students wanted to sing it again. After the first repeat, these pieces became annual staples.
7. The audience will find familiarity, comfort, and connection with the chosen holiday music
In most cases, the holiday pieces we choose to sing are well-known, even if the arrangements themselves are unique. Even if a specific holiday selection happens to be unfamiliar to a new audience member, the returning parents will be familiar, which will further engage them at our concert.
Oh Hanukkah (SATB) – add this to your caroling packet!
8. Holidays are all about tradition
Christmas and Hanukkah are rooted in tradition. These holidays bring families and communities together, and many people choose to celebrate the same way, year after year. If we treat our choir as a family and our home audience as choir’s extended family, we will then embrace tradition with familiar and repeated repertoire. This is why the Hallelujah Chorus is beloved in so many communities. While I can really appreciate the sentiment behind the annual repetition of this piece in many high school choral programs, I believe there are much better choices in terms of bringing holiday spirit, amount of rehearsal time needed, and overall audience appreciation. The music we hear on the radio, in the malls, and on our favorite television shows are weaved into our culture.
Last words about holiday repeats
I have chosen three holidays that I believe best represent my community. I’m sure many of you out there will feel a need to represent less or more holidays during the season. The concept of repeating songs has no bearing on the amount of holidays we choose to embrace.
Can you choose to repeat some fan favorites year after year and also teach varied high-quality holiday music every year? Sure you can!