Your Beginner's First Noel

Being able to play Christmas music is one of the most important benefits of being able to play the piano. Putting what he has learned to use right away will encourage the beginner to perfect and enlarge his repertory of skills and fuel his interest in more study.

The teacher should make sure his beginner's first Christmas at the piano is memorable and particularly fun.

Appropriate Level of Difficulty

Material chosen should be appropriate for the beginner's level (early, middle, advanced).

I believe that Christmas music should offer only the mildest challenge, if any challenge at all! The focus should be on -use- of existing skills, not acquisition of new ones.

Focus on Holiday Materials

Christmas is a child's favorite holiday, so very few children tire of Christmas music. Some could play Christmas material year-'round - - if it wouldn't drive their parents to distraction!

Some students will want to play Hannukah music. In fact, many Christian children also will delight in playing "Dreidle," "Hannukah, O Hannukah," and Hannukah, Festival of Lights."

Your Jewish, Muslim, or Buddist students may not want to play -Christian- music, but they'll want to do the non-religious songs associated with the season, such as "Jingle Bells," "Deck the Hall," and even "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." The only way to know is to ask. "Would you like to play "Away in a Manger?"

Ok, how do you know which religion your student is? It seems crass to say, "Do you believe in Jesus?" so you say, "Does your family celebrate Christmas?" The response will let you know exactly the level of religious commitment the family has: (1) "Oh, yes! We go to church twice each Sunday," or "Yes, but my mother is Jewish so we celebrate Hannukah, too" or "No, Buddists don't celebrate Christmas."

If you find you have students of the Muslim faith, for example, make an effort to find music particular to their culture. Call the parent. "I'd like to arrange some material for Ali which is associated with the Muslim holiday. Can you help me by suggesting some titles?" Often, the parent can provide a piece of sheet music you can use as a basis for your arrangement. In the case of Iranian students, "Golden Dreams" is popular (but not a holiday tune!), so I use that one at Christmas time when the Christians and Jews are playing music associated with their end-of-the-year holidays.

Focus on Holiday Music

For the month of December (which is often foreshortened by school vacation anyway), why not restrict lesson assignments to Christmas music plus a reduced technical regimen? Emphasize playing all old Christmas tunes daily. I put this as an assignment item on the pad ("play all old Ch. songs 1x daily") so the student does it and therefore is ready to play "a Christmas concert" at the drop of the hat.

Since this is all new ground for the beginner, discuss these concerts. For whom can he play his music (family? classmates? Scout troop? church? neighborhood sing-along?). Suggest he volunteer to play whenever he finds himself in a situation that also has a piano.

Emphasize the fun of playing the piano and capitalizing on the skills he has. Demonstrate to him - - and set it up so he demonstrates to himself - - the utility of having these skills he worked so hard to acquire.

There is plenty of time in January to return to literature. Meanwhile, the child will think you and he are in grand cahoots to "play hooky" from the normal requirements.

Christmas Concert

Tell the child and the parent you'd like the student to give a Christmas concert for the family. This should be an organized affair, not a slap-dash, after-thought event. The family should anticipate this concert, thus making the student feel special.

The family should come in and sit down and be a proper audience. They should applaud after each piece and be quiet while the student is playing. You should explain these particular points to the adult.

The student may hand out programs with a cover he designed himself, listing his selections. He may announce them from the piano, but programs are better because it makes the concert seem like "the real thing" and also provides a precious memento for the scrapbook.

Show the beginner how to bow; this is ideal preparation for your recital. The student won't feel very self-conscious in front of his family. Bowing once at the end of the concert is plenty, unless the child is a natural ham and wishes to garner accolades after each piece. Mention he has this choice.

A good time for the family concert is between dinner and dessert on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. That way, the concert ends with "refreshments," as recitals usually do, and the student will be the focus of conversation afterwards.

Such a Christmas concert is a marvelous event to video-tape or photograph. Documentation will be priceless in years to come, and it will be a wonderful record to see how the student progresses from Christmas to Christmas - - in musical expertise, stage deportment, and physical growth. If the cameraman includes the audience, too, it will provide a lasting memento of family holidays.

Introduce Other Skills

Christmas is also a good time to give the piano student a little vocal training.

You play the carols, he stands, and the two of you sing. Show the student how to stand up straight, breathe from the diaphragm, and open his mouth. If he is old enough to understand, point out that it is the vowels which are sustained, not the consonants; mention -s and -r endings, too. ("We Wisssssssh You a Merrrrrrry Chrrrrrrisssstmassssss" is a jolly example to use here. Ask your student also to sing it as wrong as possible to point up the problems. Students get a real honk out of doing it completely wrong!)

Materials

Use tried and true materials, even if the books have copyright dates with dust on them. You know students like them and how to teach them for maximum fun and learning.

I feel that eighth-notes should be withheld in beginner music, and it is very difficult to find any materials that don't have eighth-notes in them. (A type I particularly chuckle over is a melody divided between the hands, centered around Middle C, but using eighth-notes! We have "mixed media" here, so to speak.)

Employing what I think every beginner needs, over the years I arranged many Christmas songs and sorted them into early (3-6 months), middle (6-12), and advanced (12-18) stages. A portion of these are now published and available from your music seller:

"Christmas Carols at the Piano" - early - melody divided between the hands (small f to g': middle C position) - Summy-Birchard
"Christmas at the Piano - Early Beginner" - early - most two-handed playing (small f to g': middle C position) - ECS Publishing
"Christmas at the Piano - Middle Beginner" - middle - two-handed playing (small c to c'': C position) - ECS Publishing
"Christmas at the Piano - Advanced Beginner" - advanced - two handed playing (Great C to c''') - ECS Publishing

This material uses no eighth-notes and guarantees Christmas is as fun for the teacher as the student.

Note: If, in the course of using these all-quarters materials, the student "modifies" the rhythm to match what he normally hears, don't worry. Do point out, however, what the student is doing so no sloppy habits develop. I add, "But in this case it's ok."

If you don't like my stuff, make your own! The whole point is to allow the beginner access to music he loves without a lot of hassle!

copyright 1998, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me for reprint permission.


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