Introducing Christmas Pieces
Found in: Accompaniment
[Note: This thread was created before the ‘Songs for Christmas’ program was published. This program provides Christmas accompaniment options for students regardless of how much of the Simply Music curriculum they have completed.]
Ramona H., Alaska
My students are all entering their fourth week of lessons, and some are learning Jackson Blues or Honey Dew this week. Several of the adults and older teens have asked whether they will be able to learn any Christmas music. I can see that would be possible after they’ve learned the chords of these two pieces. Do you feel it’s okay to work out some simple accompaniments for them, or would I be rushing something that should wait until next Christmas season? If the former, do any of you have a recommendation of which carol(s) work out nicely? Thank you!
Barbara M., New Jersey
I am glad this topic came up. I know it is one of our long term goals to have students “self-generate”, but at what point does this begin? Isn’t it one of the things that Neil says in the TTP that will hinder progress, to introduce songs outside the method? Plus, how do you incorporate someone’s outside interests into a group lesson? Maybe others are of a different (or no) faith? Someone at my FIS wanted me to show him, on the spot, how to play Jingle Bells!
Cindy B., Illinois
As far as I know, Neil encourages students to bring in accompaniments – it’s the only way to get lots of diverse practice in ‘lego building’ skills 🙂
Ramona H., Alaska
Neil does say, during Teacher Training, that the introduction of outside songs as part of the lesson will hinder the method – at least, that was my understanding, and this is probably more true early on in the program. However, it seems that “teachable moments” also occur and deserve some attention. My students are all fairly homogeneous, in that they celebrate Christmas. Because we’re in a small, rural community, my shared and group lessons are with people and children that choose to be together, and we all tend to know each other to some degree. I don’t plan on introducing Christmas songs per se, as my students are all in Level 1, but I can see that it would be rewarding for them to be able to play along with one or two songs they have figured out, during the holiday season.
I was doing a little work on my own with the first Dreams Come True arrangement, and realized it could be adapted to the spiritual, ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain’ with very little modification. This is what I’m looking for . . . ways to use our Simply Music techniques and songs in a practical application that gives the student satisfaction and builds on his/her enthusiasm for learning how to play piano. Please correct me if I’m wrong . . . I also realize that sometimes I need to rein in my own enthusiasm for the program, as I can tend to want to introduce too much too soon. I can see that ‘balance’ is a key element.
Ginny W., Western Australia
I will preface this by saying I haven’t bought the Simply Music Songs for Christmas and New Year program and materials yet, so I don’t know too much about it (when I enquired, Gordon suggested that it is really only suitable for more advanced students).
In my experience, Christmas songs can be easily taught as accompaniment pieces. They provide a bit of breadth and break from the main program at a time of year in W. Australia when people are generally hot, overloaded with activities and ready for holidays and a bit of fun and frivolity!
I use a book called 101 Christmas Songs for Buskers which is easy to read and has a wide variety of songs and levels of complexity to draw from. Examples:
‘What Child is This’ which, as some of you may know, is sung to the tune of ‘Greensleeves’. If a student has already reached Level 3, it’s a hoot for them to ‘cross-pollinate’ in this way, by playing as an accompaniment, a song from their Playlist, but with Christmas lyrics.
‘Jingle Bells’ borrowing the ‘She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain’ (‘bottom-right-top-right’) rhythm to play .
With level 1 or 2 students, it is still usually possible to simplify an arrangement and get them to play the song using only chords and techniques they know solidly, often in a single lesson. It can also be an opportunity (if developmentally appropriate) to surreptitiously teach minor rhythmic variations such as adding finger two, or ‘rocking’, to make it sound more interesting. If a student knows Honeydew and Amazing Grace, they automatically know the chords for a range of Christmas Carols! If they are slower with putting accompaniment together, I sometimes just treat it as a duet during the lesson and play one hand for them, so that they still have a bit of fun and an experience of success at ‘playing’ a known song, in the weeks leading up to Christmas (ie round about now!)
If they are more advanced, and ready to or already demonstrating an ability to read chords from a standard music score, I get them to purchase the actual music book or songsheet. As with any popular music played as accompaniment, it is always possible to simplify the arrangements in the book just by deleting or crossing out chords that may be too challenging with a pencil and having the student play a more basic version of a chord. Just because music is written a certain way doesn’t mean it always has to be played that way (unless of course they are ready for those variations)!
I find that the process of making connections between certain Christmas songs and existing playlist songs and accompaniment skills inadvertantly helps to re-inforce, even to relatively inexperienced students, the broader sense of what accompaniment offers – ie the chance to play and sing an endless variety of familiar contemporary and popular songs, many of which share chords and chord sequences.
On the general discussion of why people become disenchanted with the accompaniment program, my response it twofold: I believe that: 1) it may be a case of ‘too much too soon’ and, 2) it may be because (as Neil has pointed out on numerous occasions) accompaniment becomes meaningless without someone singing or playing along!
The challenge at times is to consistently ensure that either a parent family member or friend is doing this outside of lessons. I’ve only just started to make agreements with students about finding someone who can play the melody on another instrument, with a view to inviting them to the lesson, but it does seem to make a difference to rekindling their enthusiasm for accompaniment.
Gordon H., Australia
Just to clarify the level of difficulty of the Music for Christmas and the New Year program: I would say the pieces begin at a similar level to the Level 2 versions of Star Spangled Banner or Advance Australia Fair. About nine different key signatures are represented. All pieces include at least a few non-major chords, but none have as many different chords as the final ‘Oh Danny Boy’ from the Accompaniments program.
There could be a few different ways this program might be presented. You could introduce one or two songs at a similar stage and in a similar way to Star Spangled Banner or Advance Australia Fair, that is teaching the piece by simply “showing” the student the chords, without them necessarily understanding how to work the chords out for themselves. If it’s the right time of year they could learn Christmas songs instead of Star Spangled Banner and Advance Australia Fair, which could then be explored later in the Accompaniment program.
For Level 2 (or maybe even Level 1) students you could also introduce simplified versions of some of these songs. As Ginny points out “As with any popular music played as accompaniment, it is always possible to simplify the arrangements in the book just by deleting or crossing out chords that may be too challenging with a pencil and having the student play a more basic version of a chord”. Then, in a year or so, you can revive the song by introducing the missing chords.
Of course, you can also weave the Christmas songs into the fabric of the regular Accompaniments program, especially after students have digested the major chords and are venturing into other chords. Although late in the year is the obvious time to introduce a bunch of Christmas songs, I’ll happily throw in the occasional one at any time. On the other hand, I’m careful not to overdo it at this time of year, especially with too many challenging pieces.