Music Teacher's Helper Blog



As teachers, we’re not the only ones with ever increasing lists of “To-Do’s”. With extra performances, programs and parties it can become overwhelming, can’t it? Our students and their families also have their busy holiday schedules, and, as most of you can agree, the focus can just go completely out the window! So, how do we keep the lessons productive and fun throughout these seasons? Whether it be Christmas and Hanukkah, birthdays, Ground Hog Day, or summer vacation, the list can go on and on!

We all have a student or two, who will practice their assignments…through thick and thin. And then, we have the more typical ones, who do pretty well most of the time. Let’s face it, during certain times of the year, we all just tend to get a little (or a lot) scattered. Between anticipating the excitement of special occasions, extra parties, not being at home to practice, and ALL THAT SUGAR… just getting to the music lesson can be quite a feat. Showing up with lesson materials and music in hand, yet even a bigger accomplishment!

Expectations are key. If you have unrealistic expectations of your students during busy times of the year, you are likely to be disappointed, and they will feel badly about letting you down. Instead, alter your expectations accordingly. Set goals with your students to get you both through these seasons having accomplished something special, and still loving music…and each other! The more flexible you can be, as the teacher, the greater the possibilities for achieving this.

You’ve been there, done that…Thomas comes flying through the door, seven minutes late to his lesson. “Oh, no! I forgot to put my books in the car before school this morning!” he exclaims. “How’s your week going?” you ask. “It was really hectic, and I really didn’t get to the piano much.” This scenario can deflate any teacher’s enthusiasm. Let’s turn things around. “OK, Thomas, it looks like today, we have a great opportunity do something a little different!” (You just went from, “How in the world are we going to get anything done with no books, and no practicing?” to “OK, here’s a chance to have some fun!”  Thomas just turned from feeling bad about not being prepared, to curiously anticipating the lesson…or resolving to never forget his books again!

So, WHAT to do?…

Holiday music is a great tool for improvisation, ear training and sight reading practice. A few of my students won’t even get a Christmas piece learned to performance level, unless they start in August, and we’re really not in the mood then, right?! So here are some ways I have used these pieces. (For more success, make sure to use materials that are two to three levels easier than the student’s current reading level.)


I love to use holiday music for sight reading material, especially duets. Keep it fun and encouraging to the student.  Set your student up for a successful experience by selecting music that is two to three levels easier than the student’s current reading level. If the teacher plays (or sings, in the case of voice lessons) one line, while the students focuses on the other, the experience can be quite fun! Much praise (and rewards!) is in order…no matter how it sounded!


You can use holiday songs in a “Name That Tune” format to sharpen aural skills. I got this idea from a game series I have in my studio. Give a hint: How many notes will it take for you to guess this tune? It’s about a holiday everyone celebrates at a different time, each year? (Happy Birthday) If the student says, “I can name it in five notes!” then you play or sing, “C C D C F,” and see if they can guess the tune. If not, repeat it, this time adding the next note (E) and so on. This is great for group lessons too. Now ask the student(s) to determine the intervals between those notes. The 4th between C and F can now become a reference point for remembering what a 4th feels or sounds like.


You can begin by helping the student sound out a melody by ear, and then adding his own unique rhythm and embellishments. For pianists, after becoming comfortable with the melody, the student may be encouraged to add the primary triads in the appropriate key, with the left hand. Start with basic blocked chords, and then put them into inversions, arpeggios, and accompaniment patterns. Now, you take over playing the melody, and ask the student to play a triad that sounds good with the melody for each downbeat of the music. I usually cue the student on the downbeats that require a new chord. Some students will be able to hear which chord to put down, others will need some help. At the next lesson, you can teach him one or two different accompaniment styles. “Dueting” works well for this, as it allows the student to focus on one skill at a time.

You may have the student work completely by ear, or use a lead sheet format (write out the words, or melody and words with chord symbols). You can find lyrics, and sometimes chord charts online. Fake books are also useful, but most get a little bogged down with too many chords for the beginning improviser (“white-out” is great!) Some of my students have enjoyed putting two or three carols together to create a holiday medley! One year, everyone took the same carol, and each did their own unique arrangement. Then they shared them at group lessons.

For those very structured learners, even taking a piece from a book, and changing just a few notes can move an individual gradually into the creative realm. You might even have to circle a measure and tell them to just change one note in that measure to get them started!


If you have easy access to recording equipment or software, record your students’ holiday pieces as they near performance level. Just push “record”…you can always get another take later. When the students have a few pieces recorded (this can happen in one season for some, and over several seasons for others) go ahead and burn a CD for them to give to Grandpa and Grandma. You might let the students use lab time, or their computers at home to create a design for the front of their CD. Software and printer forms are available for this at any office store. Note: If other artists’ music is used…even melodies, care must be taken to not distribute CDs to the public, or sell them, as then copyright permission has to be gotten.


You might avoid a whole bunch of stress by not scheduling big recitals during the busiest months of the year. I usually avoid May and December. Find venues for one or two casual performances over the holidays to bless those who might be lonely, or confined during this time. Keep it simple! Instead of having a reception and adding more SUGAR to everyone’s diet, we add a little sweetness after the event by having each student find one or two people in the audience to introduce themselves to, and initiate a brief conversation. It leaves everyone with a wonderful feeling afterwards!

I hope you have found something here to inspire you and your students! Please add your comments and ideas…and HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!!

Musically yours,


P.S.  In case you’d like my comp/improv blog articles in hard copy…I’ve published them in a 23 page book form: Music Creativity in Bloom ~ Dozens of Inspiring Ideas to help you teach Composition and Improvisation. You may find this and more music creativity teaching tools at

About the Author


  1. Chris Brown

    Great article, Christine! You gave many creative ideas to enjoy the Holidays with your students. Thank you! I live and teach in Pueblo county. Look forward to reading more info in your bio when you get to it. HAPPY HOLIDAYS to you, also!

  2. Christine Schumann

    Thank you for your feedback, Chris! I hope you’ll be trying out a few new things with your students this week! I’ll get to that bio soon!

  3. Adelo Dexter Macaldo

    Very interesting.

    Music is important in our daily lives.

    Keep it!

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