The spirit of Christmas arrived for me a couple of Mondays ago at 2.30pm, give or take five minutes! Yes, we had some great concert performances by Foundation Phase and Key Stage 2 but the real magic of Christmas descended when I took a group of 16 Year 6 and Year 4 choir children to perform a selection of Christmas songs for a group of elderly residents at a local care home.
Sadly, the success of primary schools (and, of course, secondary) is constantly judged by the data requested, but in this instance, no amount of data could reflect the warmth and sheer joy created in that twenty minute performance. The look on the faces of the children showed their genuine delight as they sang their hearts out with ‘Let it Snow!’, ‘Little Donkey’ and ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’. The audience, some of whom were initially quiet and sedentary, suddenly came alive; tapping their feet, clapping along and grinning from ear to ear. It was as if time had been suspended and nothing existed outside of this magical bubble of humanity! At the end of our performance, the children were encouraged to mingle with the residents and wish them a ‘Happy Christmas’. Some, it has to be said were quite reluctant at first, but after a few minutes they were moving around from one resident to another like a game of musical chairs that they would inevitably play later in the week.
And so in that one afternoon an opportunity was presented to contribute to the true meaning of Christmas by joining hands across the generations. ‘Music speaks when words fail’ is a saying that sums up the occasion and I urge all schools with a choir to get in touch with local care homes, day centres and community organisations. As well as providing opportunities to perform and develop their vocal skills, your children can give so much to the wider community in ways that, sadly, cannot currently be measured by Ofsted/Estyn, but nevertheless enriches the lives of all in so many ways.
Christmas in July? Well that’s par for the course in the world of primary teaching! Preparation is everything if you want to fit Christmas into an already hectic curriculum! I usually start to think about Christmas in the summer holiday and my family get a bit disturbed hearing the strains of various Christmas songs wafting through the house when the sun is shining (hopefully!), there are umpteen lawn mowers going and there are no more choc-ices in the freezer!
When I start to put a programme together I like to combine traditional with modern on a roughly 50-50 basis to make sure that the children are stretched musically and that they become more familiar with traditional carols, which many children these days seem not to be aware of. I like to include some unusual songs that perhaps other choirs might not attempt – for instance, ‘When Christmas Comes to Town’ from the film Polar Express and ‘Once Upon a Christmas Song’ by Geraldine McQueen aka Peter Kay which went down a treat one year. My school choir also goes out and about in the community to entertain various groups of people so I tend to make sure there are always one or two ‘sing-a-long’ songs, which go down well.
My experience has taught me to start with a song that grabs the listeners’ attention and this is particularly important when performing outside. I remember starting one performance with ‘Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow’ just as a snow machine whirred into action (something we weren’t aware of at the time!) – it really helped to create the atmosphere! The backing track I used had a very good introduction which also made a difference and brought more people to listen.
If you have a pianist to accompany your choir then you are lucky and it’s great when your choir is performing in a school hall or concert venue. However, using a piano outside school can become more problematic. I have taken keyboards with me in the past but these days I prefer the reliability of a CD player/PA system and backing tracks. Although there is less flexibility in the performance itself, I find that the reduced stress more than makes up for it, and primary children generally rehearse to a set pattern of performance which gives them greater confidence.
So, how do I create my ‘playlist’? Well, I begin by searching the plethora of Christmas songs, both audio tracks and sheet music to determine those songs that are within the most suitable vocal range for the children. This can be very time consuming as there are many styles and often many keys that one song can have. I either write my own songs (all of the Primary Songs Christmas songs are in a suitable vocal range!) or arrange my own versions of the songs I want if I can’t find any in suitable keys. This becomes slightly easier with sound editing programs like ‘Audacity’ (free to download) where the key can be changed up or down a tone or two without losing too much quality. There are karaoke versions of many Christmas songs but I try and make sure that they have a definite ending rather than a fade out, as I don’t like to use these in performances. I also might edit a song if it’s too long and I have even added a key change or removed one if I thought it would be more appropriate for the children!
When I am happy with the song selection I save the playlist in a program like ‘Power2Go’, where I can easily access it and change the order if necessary and then I am ready to go!
Christmas is a great time of year for music and singing in primary schools and it can really bring a school together in a shared experience that no other curriculum subject can achieve. So I hope you enjoy your Christmas preparations if they are part of your school and please feel free to leave a comment or message if you think this has been useful or if I may be able to help you in any way.