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Should we celebrate holidays & festivals in the music room?

With holidays and festivals including Thanksgiving, Halloween, Hanukkah and Christmas in the next few months, music teachers are faced with the annual conundrum – should I include holiday music in my music lessons? Opponents of holiday music cite lack of interest by students or religious beliefs as reasons for not including festive music in their teaching, but why might we want to celebrate holidays or festivals in the music classroom or studio?

Music as a conduit to understanding other cultures

Just because we sing or play music associated with a certain festival, doesn’t mean we share the beliefs that festival is about. We can however use these musical explorations to learn more about different beliefs and cultures in our world. When I was researching music to include in my Festive Fun series of books, I arranged several pieces of music for Hanukkah, including “Sevivon” and “Oh Hanukkah”. I am not Jewish, so I do not observe the practices and holidays associated with Hanukkah, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying music for Hanukkah for its intrinsic value and learning more about what is important to the people of this faith. This in turn gives me a better understanding of those around me, and it also shows any of my students who are Jewish that I acknowledge their important festivals and want to enjoy the music with them.

Other music I came across in my research was “Ureshii Hinamatsuri” for the Doll Festival observed in Japan on March 3 every year. This festival is to celebrate the good health and happiness of girls and dates back hundreds of years. When teaching this piece to my students I show them pictures, tell them what the festival is about and how the Japanese people celebrate Hinamatsuri, giving the students a tiny insight into Japanese culture.

Holiday music ideas

Festivals are an easy way to structure our lessons, as activities can be grouped around the central theme. New songs, instrumental pieces, theory work and games can all be related to a specific festival. My flute students are currently learning new Halloween pieces, enjoying theory games with pumpkins, and having fun playing breathing games with witches and bats.

Holiday music can also be easily incorporated into lessons as sight reading or even for improvisation exercises. A short piece in a major key can become a Halloween piece by simply lowering the 3rd and 6th degrees of the scale, and maybe throwing in a chromatic note here or there!

For studio teachers who do 20/30/40 piece challenges, Christmas music can be a great way to boost the total pieces as many are short, and arrangements for many different levels are available. My students are often trying to finish their 20-100 piece challenges by the end of the year to get their certificate, so I often use some easier Christmas music just for fun. Many teachers also do Christmas duets as an end-of-year activity or include Christmas music in their end-of-year concert.

Expanding our repertoire

If you choose to include Christmas music in your program, you might enjoy exploring how Christmas is celebrated in other countries. In preparing my Festive Fun instrumental books, I came across some beautiful Christmas music from Italy which instantly captivated me, “Tu scendi dalle stelle” and “Fermarono i cieli”. I arranged these two 18th century songs as duets and trios, and these pieces are now some of my some of my best-loved Christmas music. Had I not been searching for Christmas music from other countries, I would not have found this music, and I’m sure there are many more wonderful Christmas songs still for me to discover.

I also came across a delightful musical “Children of the World”, which has songs about how Christmas is celebrated in different parts of the world, finishing with a unifying song. Or maybe your students could learn Christmas songs in other languages? The Spanish song “Feliz Navidad” is very popular and easy to learn, or for more of a challenge try the German song, “O Tannenbaum”. If you have students of different nationalities, maybe they could sing or play music from their country?

Festive Fun by Karen North

Passing traditional music down through generations

Some teachers say they don’t teach holiday music such as Christmas songs, because their students don’t know them and don’t ask for them. For me, this is all the more reason to introduce them to this music! I included a catchy French-Canadian Winter Festival song, “Bonhomme” in my Festive Fun books and was chatting to a Canadian friend who said she wasn’t familiar with this song. She then asked her father if he knew it, “Oh yes!” he replied. So, we can help keep traditional music alive by teaching it to our students.

Amongst those who have grown up with Christmas music, even people who are non-religious say that it just wouldn’t be the same without singing Christmas music and many students love to have a few Christmas tunes to play for their family gatherings over the holidays. For children who like to busk at the local shops, a repertoire of Christmas pieces can reap rich rewards!!!

But my school doesn’t allow holiday music!

My first suggestion is to present some of the above suggestions to your principal to see if they can appreciate the benefits of students learning holiday music. If that still doesn’t succeed, consider how you could include themes related to big festivals but without actual reference to them. Instead of Halloween songs you can sing songs about pumpkins or harvest time, there are also songs about black cats which have no mention of Halloween or witches. You can also change the words of songs, for example the cumulative song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, could easily change to “The Twelve Days of New Year”.

Then there are songs which are about friends and family but not any specific festival, such as “This Time of Year” so students can enjoy singing about gatherings and celebrations without mention of any festival.

Instrumental versions of songs are sometimes acceptable, or you and your students might be perfectly happy not singing/playing any festive or holiday music, and that’s fine too!

So, should we celebrate holidays & festivals in the music room?

My personal opinion is YES! I know there will be some who disagree and of course it is up to you what music you choose to present to your students. Many children (and teachers!) will get great enjoyment from celebrating these holidays and festivals, and we can all gain insight into other cultures by learning their music and hearing about the traditions associated with them. There will be a few who are unable to participate in festive music class lessons, so it’s important to provide them with other interesting activities.

Celebrating holidays and festivals in music lessons enables our students to explore new repertoire, to enjoy singing and playing traditional songs, to discover music of other cultures and to enjoy sharing and understanding festivals and holidays around the world.

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