An Alternative Christmas Program

Mike Lawson • Commentary • November 1, 2002

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Do you ever wish for a different kind of Christmas program? Are you concerned that your students may already be saturated with traditional Christmas music after hearing it almost nonstop on the radio and at the supermarket since late October? Do you feel awkward asking non-Christian students in your band or orchestra to play Christmas songs?

If you’re ready for a change, you may want to consider an option that we’ve been using at Prairie Middle School for over 10 years. Student groups perform music of their choice for holiday shoppers at the local mall.

Just before Thanksgiving, band and orchestra students plan solos or organize themselves into ensembles. They often get a group of their closest friends together, or the teaching staff suggests like-instrument groupings – ensembles that include high, middle and low voices, or groups comprised of section leaders that we would like to have working together. Students are also allowed to form ensembles that include family members, private teachers or friends from other schools. They can choose any music they like, with the exception that we don’t let three flutes play their favorite concert band piece or two trumpets perform the hottest jazz band chart in their folder. Otherwise, they can choose holiday or non-holiday music, pop tunes or something from their private lessons. We maintain a substantial library of ensemble music collections, supplemented by books our students find at music stores, so students have a wide variety of arrangements and styles to pick from.

After ensemble members and music have been chosen, students begin coming in before and after school to rehearse their groups. After it’s clear that they’re progressing well enough to practice by themselves, playing the right notes and rhythms, groups are given 10 minutes each out of full rehearsal to go out in the hall to practice. The 10-minute limit is used because we’ve found that after 10 minutes, time outside is usually being spent socializing. If they know there’s a time limit, most groups settle down to work more quickly. Usually there are so many groups wanting to practice that a schedule is made up and written on the chalkboard so two or three groups can go at the same time and others know when it’s time to rotate back into rehearsal.

The coming and going is a bit hectic and demands teacher flexibility for a couple of weeks but isn’t impossible to manage. In addition to time out of daily rehearsal, groups almost always schedule additional practice time at someone’s house and we require some additional before- and after-school sessions with the teaching staff so we can attend to balance and intonation, phrasing and dynamics – all the things needed to help ensure that “Deck the Halls” or “Hanukkah Celebration” has a high-quality sound and bears a close resemblance to the original favorite.

The evening of the program, students are given a schedule that tells them approximately when they’ll perform. For example, several groups will have the time block from 7 – 7:15 p.m., the exact order of performance staying flexible in case someone is running late or needs to play early. We have two performance areas: one is a small stage set up by the shopping mall management and the other is a small stage set at floor level, so one group can be setting up while another plays.

Students are allowed to plan what they’ll wear and sometimes elect to wear their regular concert black and white, while others may choose to wear all red shirts or something equally festive but reasonably uniform. Many students decorate their instruments with colorful holiday ribbon, complemented by Santa hats and occasional pipe cleaner reindeer hats. A large sign on an easel informs passing shoppers which school the students represent, and smaller, very colorful signs attached to the large on explain who the group members are and what they’re playing. Creative artwork is encouraged and always turns out surprisingly well. After they play, students are free to leave and may join their families to shop or have dinner somewhere in the mall.

Though the program takes most of an evening for the teachers, lasting from about 6 to 9 p.m., compared to other school programs, it is still relatively painless. The potentially burdensome job of moving and setting up concert equipment is nominal in this case and can be minimized by having each teacher bring three or four stands and asking the mall to provide a piano and a few chairs.

An attractive side benefit of the mall ensemble program is that many groups also play for their academic teams during the week before Christmas, and others are asked to play in the halls around school during the day before the holiday break.
Positive outcomes of this alternative kind of holiday program have been numerous:

  1. The conflict of having non-Christian musicians rehearse and perform Christian holiday music has been eliminated because students can choose to play music that is compatible with their beliefs and cultural viewpoints. We’ve found that many Jewish and other non-Christian students will actually elect to play traditional Christmas carols, but since the choice was theirs, we’ve encountered no difficulty in that regard.
  2. Younger students are provided a non-threatening performance environment to gain solo and ensemble performance experience.
  3. Young musicians have a chance to play solos for their parents and relatives when regular band and orchestra concerts are too crowded for such individual recognition.
  4. Our music program gains high-visibility public exposure.
  5. Students have the opportunity to exercise choices regarding literature, ensemble membership and attire.
  6. Full group rehearsal time is reserved for other teaching and performance preparation.
  7. Students receive individual attention and recognition from teachers and peers for their playing.

Other teaching situations may be significantly different from ours, but this alternative holiday program has been working well at our school. This year, you might consider scheduling an alternative holiday program for presentation in a mall, senior citizens center or other similar community venue.

Mike Pearce teaches middle school band and orchestra at Prairie Middle School in the Cherry Creek Schools in the Denver (Colo.) Metro Area. He has taught public school band and orchestra for 30 years in Iowa, New Mexico and Colorado, and has been at Prairie Middle School for 16 years. He received his B.A. in music education from Eastern New Mexico University, his M.A. in French horn from the University of Iowa and his M.S. in anthropology from the University of Northern Colorado. Pearce is proudest of the number of times he has been able to help his bands and orchestras learn to play at high levels. In his years of teaching, his groups have been rated “superior” 35 times; he has had two groups selected to play for MENC national conventions and four chosen to play for the Colorado Music Educators Conference in Colorado Springs. Pearce is an active clinician, judge and guest conductor throughout Colorado and New Mexico.

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