It’s that time of year again, when all my students are begging to play Christmas carols. If your students are anything like mine, they start requesting carols around October (possibly coinciding with the time that shops start putting up their decorations – I’m sure the requests are coming earlier every year), and no matter how long you manage to delay it for, it is inevitable that there will be some weeks when student after student turn up to their lessons, proudly displaying their version of Jingle Bells. So, how do you find pedagogical value in Christmas carols, and how do you keep it interesting for both student and teacher?
I find that books of Christmas Carols aimed at students are usually only useful for one or two years at the most, before students have made too much progress to find much enjoyment in sight-reading music that seemed like such a challenge a year ago (although it is a wonderful way for them to see how much they have progressed). So I prefer to approach carols differently than merely learning them as additional repertoire.
Depending on the capabilities of the student I use all or a selection of the following steps.
Younger students are given the melody of the Christmas carol in a simple key; while more advanced students aurally dictate it. Once the melody is written down and the key is established, we build triads on each scale degree, and play through the primary triads, discussing the function of each chord (for example, the tonic sounds like home, the dominant 7th acts as a signpost pointing towards home). For younger students I discuss how a chord progression can behave like a journey – starting at home, traveling away from home, exploring a new area, finding signs that point us towards home, and finally returning home.
Once the student is familiar with the harmonic language, we examine the melody and allocate chords that are appropriate. Each chord is checked for its effectiveness in the context of the preceding and following chords.
We discuss inversions of chords as a way for making block chords easily playable and then discuss a variety of styles of piano accompaniment, which are then applied to the chord progression. Students enjoy inventing their own variations on given formulae.
For more advanced students, the final step of the process is sight transposing their arrangements into different keys.
Hopefully these are some ideas that other teachers can employ in the lead up to the festive season this year.