Choir Planning for Christmas

This is the time for music teachers to start planning for Christmas. Yep, it’s May. Some music teachers plan for the next Christmas in January so we may be considered a little bit late. What we need to do now is work out what groups do what and prepare the files before the end of term so every child who returns in August (we start in August) has a file with all the music ready. We are a largish international school and have many choirs. We have a Year 2 Choir, a Year 3 Choir, a Year 456 Choir and a secondary youth musical theatre group which is basically a choir that moves and are part of the secondary annual musical.

Next year we will be starting a chamber primary choir so the Year 456 Choir will probably have very few Year 6 members as my colleague who works cross phase is interested in starting an auditioned Y6/7 Chamber Choir. This will work out well as we have so many children wanting to join our choirs and we always make them non-auditioned. The new Chamber Choir will be our only auditioned choral group and will be for those children who want to take singing very seriously and sing in close harmony.

My group will be the Year 456 Choir and I will have them an hour a week although I am thinking of taking an additional rehearsal for Year 4 for twenty minutes before school starts. It is a two-part choir and for the new Year 4’s they will have had some experience but this is the first time they will be split into sopranos and altos. Our school has four houses and way I choose is simply that Romans and Vikings sing soprano and Normans and Saxons will sing alto. We could listen to their ranges but no song will go above an E flat so they should all be able to sing both parts. I will swap them over after Christmas when we get a new repertoire so they all get a chance to sing soprano and alto.

The next job is to plan from September to December and make sure that each choir doesn’t sing the same songs. My choir will have a repertoire of two international songs for International Day in November, a peace song for World Peace Day, two Halloween songs for Halloween and eight songs for Christmas. Because this is a lot of repertoire there will be some repeats from last year. We will repeat “Child of Song”, “Twelve Days of Christmas”, “Carols 4” and “Walking in the Air”. My colleague is thinking of some suitable songs but I have planned “Do you hear what I hear”, “Sleigh Ride” and “Colours of Christmas” and I have an ambitious idea of doing “Hard Rock Hallelujah” for Halloween. We will all have a meeting in the next few weeks about repertoire so we have a plan moving forwards. Nothing is set in stone but we want to get the majority of the planning done now as there are so many other things to focus on when the academic year restarts.

The reason we have to plan so early and thoroughly is that we only get fourteen hour-long rehearsals before Christmas and have to prepare a lot of material. Each song will be in an individual’s file with the full piano and two part vocal scores. Each song will be scanned so that we can send a copy of the music home for each child. We make backing tracks for many of the songs in the studio so children know which part to sing and how it fits together. These recordings are then sent home to practice. We work out the live instrumental accompaniments now, as no song will use a backing track – we strongly believe in live music. This means that the school orchestra will accompany the choir for about four songs. I spent a long time making full orchestral parts for “The Star”, “Twelve Days”, “Carols 4” and “We wish you a merry Christmas” last year and they were successful in our Winter Celebration and our final concert in an enormous mall in Guangzhou. This year we will make orchestral arrangements for “Do you hear what I hear”, and “Colours of Christmas”. We will make an arrangement of “Sleigh Ride” for the Wind Band and our string group will accompany the choir for a few songs like “Walking in the Air”. Nearly all the instrumental parts are hand-made so they exactly fit our strengths. We buy a few arrangements online but we have found you end up having to adapt them all, so it is sometimes easier to download something basic on MuseScore and then either adapt it or more likely rearrange it. I put all my arrangements on MuseScore for free.

Every song takes about three to four hours to arrange on MuseScore, about another two to three hours to make a backing track and mix down and about an hour to sort out files, photocopies and email the tracks and PDFs to the students. Most of this work happens in the summer but I try to get some done in term time. Each song will then need about two to three hours of rehearsal so that’s why we need everything prepared in advance, as we basically learn the songs very quickly and then just keep refining them over all the available rehearsals. We sing the songs without the files so the children need to learn a lot of words, hence the constant repetition.

If you don’t already do this, I strongly recommend you plan Christmas in May or before. It reduces a lot of stress in term time as many music teachers are expected to have a dual role of teaching great lessons and basically running an after-school events company. It may seem a bit unfair and there is a lot of work but that’s the job and as far as jobs go, it’s a decent, fun and rewarding one. And it is always amazing to hear from members of the public that no school does Christmas as good as our school.