Let’s Expand Our Holiday Horizons: A Top 10 List of Lesser-Known Classical Christmas Works

LaDona's Music Studio:

Making my way through this list of less well-known classical Christmas pieces, and enjoying every minute of it. Thanks to Robert Baldwin for posting these.

Originally posted on Before the Downbeat:

ImageI’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately on the “Christmas Channel” radio stations.  What starts out in early December as great traditional fare seems to devolve as the holiday approaches. Singers and arrangers with markedly less talent and imagination dominate the airwaves.  The classy arrangements and vocal stylings of Nat King Cole or the Harry Simeone Chorale are replaced by the latest pop singer with little concept of vocal support; nor have they been advised that certain songs simply don’t work when you belt them out.

So, I relegate myself to my classic CDs, and now to streaming of albums and artists that capture the season for me.  But as with everything, there is always more to discover.  What happens when we get tired of the popular stylings and even the usual classical fare (aka, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Handel’s Messiah)?  Where do we turn for some really interesting and quality Christmas…

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Pace yourself

IMG_0758I’m faced with an extraordinarily long teaching day. Sometimes this just happens.

I want the mental energy to give my last students the attention they deserve. I have to pace myself.

The majority of the day’s students are intermediate and advanced students who are on an exam track. This is the day to hear all those time-consuming things that are critical but sometimes get left behind as we get caught up in the technical and musical details of the repertoire. It’s that attention to musical detail that get me going and giving and putting out so much energy. And it drains me.

Today I’ll hear more of the technical requirements. I’ll make sure all the scales and arpeggios have all the right notes and fingering. At advanced levels the sheer volume of technique takes a lot of time.

Sight-reading takes up lesson time. It’s important to have the students sight-read in front of the teacher periodically, and not just hope they’re really doing it at home as much as they say they are. They also get more anxious about it at the lesson.

Ear training can consume a lot lesson time. It’s training, not just testing, at this stage. A lot of repetition and pointing out the quality of intervals and chords is in order.

Finally, being so close to Christmas, it will be a good day to haul out some Christmas duets for sight-reading and fun.  End on a happy note before the holiday. A day planned like this should result in quality lessons for all, and a satisfied teacher at the end of the day.

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A defense against mediocrity

300px-RouenCathedral_Monet_1894“And if we look at the works of J.S. Bach – a benevolent god to which all musicians should offer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity – on each page we discover things which we thought were born only yesterday, from delightful arabesques to an overflowing of religious feeling greater than anything we have since discovered. And in his works we will search in vain for anything the least lacking in good taste.”

~Claude Debussy

Rouen Cathedral, Monet, 1894

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Rhythmic Dictation

We walked into the sterile theory classroom at the start of the 2nd term in 3rd year music. It was 9:00 AM, probably on a foggy Monday morning. It was the beginning of atonal music theory.

The professor was leaning against his desk, silent. Waiting for us to sit down and get ready. After a few moments the silence became awkward. Still without a word, he walked to the turntable and lowered the needle. A haunting bassoon solo filled the room.


We were told to write it down. To notate the melody (which should have been easier with perfect pitch) and the rhythm (which was not). I got the first note or two, then was stumped. The lesson has never left me.

Taking this idea, along with a suggestion from Christine Donkin in a workshop I attended recently, I got my intermediate group class to try this. Not with The Rite of Spring, but some familiar Christmas songs. I didn’t ask for the melody, just the rhythm.

ChristmasRhythmMatch-upI told them what note values to use, then spoke the first line of a carol. I snapped my fingers in quarter notes as I spoke. I chose easy examples, but it was still really tough. It’s one mental process to see and decode a rhythm; it’s quite another to hear it and come up with the correct notation.

And this was after an activity earlier in the class that had them matching the notated rhythm of those songs with the titles – all of which were printed out on large cards. So they had already seen what they were now trying to figure out. This is surely something that should be done on a somewhat regular basis.

There were probably some orchestral players in that theory class who at least knew The Rite of Spring. I didn’t. I felt somewhat less bad when I finally saw the score.




Christmas Carol Rhythm Match-ups cards, and other ideas for these cards, are by Jennifer Fink at Pianimation.


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We are trapped in time

daylilyphoto“With music, we are trapped in time. Each note is gone as soon as it has sounded, and it never can be recontemplated or heard again at the particular instant of rightness. It is always too late for a second look.”

~Leonard Bernstein on performing and conducting  (The Joy of Music)



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The Joy of Music, Leonard Bernstein

My hiatus from blogging afforded me the time and mental focus to wander through some of the books on my Reading List.

The Joy of MusicA joy to read was The Joy of Music by Leonard Bernstein. It’s been on my shelf for some time because I knew it contained a quote about Bach that resonates with me.

This book is a collection of imaginary conversations and scripts of telecasts. First published in 1959, some of the material is dated. The telecasts were broadcast in the 1950s and aimed at a general audience. The style is casual, and still inspirational and informative for the musically educated. The imaginary conversations (between Bernstein and, in turn, a younger brother and lyric poet, a Broadway producer, a professional manager) I could have done without.

Perhaps the chapter with the most helpful, practical advice for the piano teacher is the one on Beethoven. Bernstein’s deconstruction of the Fifth Symphony defines some of Beethoven’s compositional techniques, which provide all the clues to teaching and performing his music. Specifically, melodies are repeated then foreshortened and repeated and foreshortened again and again. The tension keeps building, searching for release. As soon as you start going through his sonatas knowing this, it will be apparent. In fact, it will hit you over the head. Over and over again.

A “what if” discussion looking at some of Beethoven’s discarded drafts is valuable for understanding not only this composer, but for pointing to an understanding of what makes good music good.

The chapters on the history of musical theatre and modern music are, of course, dated, but still worth reading. “The Art of Conducting” is fascinating, especially, I think, for those of us who have not had experience playing in an orchestra. It makes me eager to search for recordings of the same orchestral piece under different conductors to hear the differences.

The chapter on Bach covers much territory. Bernstein addresses why some people think Bach is boring. Since Haydn and Mozart we have been conditioned to expect contrast, and Bach’s music is only about one thing. We need to re-orient our ears to listen to simultaneous melodic lines. This is obvious to anyone who has spent a lifetime in classical music, but worth noting when discussing or teaching Bach, or when performing his music for a general audience.

The quote that first drew me to this book, and one reason why Bach remains my favourite composer:

For Bach, all music was religion; writing it was an act of faith; and performing it was an act of worship. Every note was dedicated to God and to nothing else. And this was true of all his music, no matter how secular its purpose.

The Reading List has been updated and incorrect links set right. I’m always on the lookout for books to add to the list. And eventually read.

Related post: One note follows another …

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Beginner Performance Class: Focus on Ensembles.

This class took place at the end of October. Performance Classes were held again this week. Details to follow. 

Beginner Class.

jewelphotoStudents: 3 girls, all with only 2 months of lessons, all age 7. Three different method books were represented, and all 3 are starting to read on-staff notation. Class length: one hour.

First, rhythm. I told them to stand in a circle.  No, they said, 3 people can only make a triangle.  Some debate about how many it would take to make a circle of people.  76? 900? A billion?

We clapped in quadruple time. They each drew one note – a quarter, a half, and a whole – on my small white board. One clapped in quarters, one in half-notes, and one in whole notes while we all counted to 4. The purpose: to keep a steady beat and to listen to each other. A couple of switches and they had all clapped all the time values. A simple but effective exercise.

Performances – round one. We had prepared pieces to play for the class. One nice thing about this age is that they are not yet self-conscious.

Next, a big push on my part to solidify the note-reading concepts of up and down, and lines and spaces. I gave them some “jewels” (bought at Michael’s) and extra-large staff paper. The jewels are clear enough that a line is visible underneath, and the staff paper is large enough that the jewel can fit in the space. We went up and down lines and spaces in steps and skips – grounding in the understanding that notes exist on every line and in every space. We put more jewels on the corresponding notes on a colourful paper keyboard.

This led nicely into a chat about Gina and Farmer Fred. They had all seen the videos in lessons already, but we enforced those landmark notes by drawing them on staff paper.


After a second round of solos, it was time for some Ensemble playing. An Ensemble recital is scheduled for for April, and all the group classes until then will include preparation for that.

All 3 girls sat at the piano, and all played unison octaves: C at the bottom, E in the middle, and G at the top. They (tried to) keep a steady beat all playing in quarters, then ventured into the same rhythm combinations we had clapped earlier.

Then – in one of those spontaneous moments when something unplanned trumps what was planned – I taught them major and minor sounds and labels by having the student playing E switch to E Flat. I made up a goofy song (about a lost, then found cat) to reflect the sad/happy nature of the two modes. Simplistic, yes, but it’s the first step.

They left the studio 10 minutes later, still giggling. And I went upstairs for my dinner break, still smiling.

*Most ideas and printables are those of Susan Paradis; video by Anne Crosby.


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The Great Exam Experiment

I’m a believer in the piano exam system. It’s a motivator, it keeps teachers on track, it ensures students learn a wide range of repertoire style and technical and musical skills (depending on the particular exam system).

Not insignificantly, it’s part of our Canadian culture.

In thirty-some years of teaching I’ve only once, last year, had a student do a grade 1 exam. My thinking has been that it’s unnecessary, it can hold a student back time-wise, it’s a stress that young kids don’t need. Just get them playing and enjoying and start in on the whole thing at grade or 3 or 4.  For the record, most of my students take most exams from grade 5 (Intermediate) and up.

But something has happened this fall that has me re-thinking the grade 1 exam. I’ve been hit with the realization of just how important it is to the students themselves to be in grade 1. It’s like some validation of their achievement and ability. The method books, however good they might be, are seen as the pre-school or kindergarten of piano.

And I don’t know this for certain, but I suspect it’s the question most often asked by other kids or adults when the subject of piano lessons comes up. Being in grade 1, and working toward an exam, gives some bragging rights.

So I’m making the transition to grade 1 a bit earlier. I’m embracing the adage that children will rise to the level of expectation. And I’m planning on a whole lot of exam preparation in the spring.


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Congratulations are due

My daughter was part of the winning choir in their category at Young Prague 2014 last month. The announcement that the winning choir was “all the way from Canada” set off a storm of excited screams.

Congratulations to the William Aberhart High School Concert Choir and their amazing conductor, Erica Phare-Bergh.

A huge thanks to music educators everywhere! I have great admiration for those who can effect this level of musicianship in a public school setting.

The announcement:


One of their performances at the festival:



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Blow up your blog

Blow up the blogOr, in my case:

  • Practice the piano. Regularly. So many reasons to do this.
  • Read more. The Great Pianists. Memoirs of a Geisha. The Lost World of Genesis One.
  • Spend time – lots more time – with family and friends. Over coffee, good food, wine.
  • Write for local newsletters.
  • Join a music côterie. An opportunity to socialize and to perform with and for other musicians.
  • Teach more. Invest time and energy and self. Open up the wonder of the world of music for the young ones.
  • Share with other teachers. Prepare more talks and workshops. Maybe explore adjudicating and examining.
  • Enlarge my own world through a deeper appreciation of all the fine arts.
  • Give more.

This blog is not dead. But it is on the back burner.

Image: Grant Snider

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A very generous policy

I stumbled upon this studio policy by a local teacher from a few decades back. I’m struck by the generosity, which overrides an attempt to keep some sense of studio management.

This is an inspiration. Perhaps some of us have gone too far the other direction. Too strict about the no make-up policy. Too unforgiving of the stuff of life that sometimes gets in the way. A little kindness and generosity feels good all around.

“Registration is made for the school year. The term, which will extend from September to June inclusive, will comprise a minimum of 36 weekly lessons…

Students may, if they wish, stop at the termination of 36 lessons… Students wishing to continue after the 36 lessons until the end of June may do so with no extra charge. Senior students are encouraged to do so as a three month break is too long for a serious student.

There is no charge for extra lessons needed at Exam, Festival or Recital time.

Wherever possible, 24 hours’ notice would be appreciated if the student is to miss a lesson… I will be happy to try and change the occasional lesson with another student, for any reason, at a time convenient to both, but sufficient notice, if possible would be appreciated. 

A student’s musical growth and happiness are my greatest concern. Students should be encouraged to enjoy their accomplishments by playing for family, friends, school and church functions. Accompanying singers, choirs, and instrumentalists is of invaluable help to the student. Please inform and consult me so that I may advise and possibly give extra time.”

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No tortoisian ambling, please

“Slow practice can be a complete waste of time if the mind is not working quickly. Simply to trawl through passages like a contented tortoise is a waste of the felt on your piano’s hammers. Good slow practice is more like a hare pausing to survey the scene – sharp in analysis, watching through the blades of grass, calculating the next sprint. My favourite kind of slow practice is the half and half variety. For example in a semiquaver passage I will play four notes at performance tempo then four notes exactly half the speed – then reverse the groups. It can sometimes be useful to do this with eight-note groups. It stops any tortoisian ambling and it focuses the mind quickly from one reflex to another. It is a hare with alert eyes.”

Stephen Hough in a fabulous (as always) blog post at The Telegraph – The Practice of Practising. Read the whole article here.



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