Overplayed or not, one of the most delightful aspects of the Christmastime holidays is the glorious music that floats everywhere. There is in fact a very large variety of flavors of it, and alleluia for that. There’s Bing crooning White Christmas, vast choirs raising the roofbeams with Hallelujahs, boys’ choirs sounding like angels, medieval madrigalesque tunes with exotic-timbred winds, strings, and drums, country-western songbirds warbling plaintive homespun yearnings, jazzy choirs or bands syncopating and jiving through the old tunes, and I love the lot, although I think it should be a felony to begin commercial Christmas-themed advertising displays of any sort (visual or audio) until after Thanksgiving.
Most of the above descriptions refer to what’s available on CD, radio, or TV. What may well be missing from too many people’s experiences is the same that may be missing in general: 1) Hearing the music live, either in a formal concert or informally in from carolers (does anyone do this door to door any more?) and 2) Doing It Yourself. The iPod and all its cousins have brought us instant and ubiquitous access to every shred of audio or visual material (albeit in Lilliputian format), but this same ease of access also brings us distance from the process of making music ourselves, which is apparently and sadly an endangered charm unique to the the human species.
iEverything is an irresistible addiction, but like all addictions, you are very likely going to paying for it by bidding adieu to vital realms of your soul. Music is a gift that is easy to give and to enjoy when you’re making it yourself. I hope you’ve had a chance to sing carols with friends or play horn quartet carol arrangements at assisted living facilities. But whether or not that part has worked out, here’s a quick and easy way to sprinkle some of the magic of holiday music onto your daily musical life as a musician (at any level). We have to practice our instruments daily (or nearly so, even during holidays). To your regular routine, add carols. You have them all in your ear – they have been irreversibly etched into your chromosomes over the years without you having a choice in the matter. Pick a favorite (the simpler the better to start). Pick a user-friendly key and/or range. Then let your ear inform your embouchure and fingers and find your way through it. Repeat; get those intervals you missed the first time. See if you can get them all by the third time through. Now do it again in another key.
You don’t have to run it through all keys, but if you’re looking for a way to burn off all those cookies, what the hey. It’s snowing outside. You’re not going anywhere. Start on F# this time, see what happens. They don’t teach you this stuff in music school. Doesn’t mean it’s not 1) valuable 2) fun.
Try another tune. You may notice that it’s easier this time. By St. Nicholas, you learned something in your struggles with the tune in that first key. It gets easier! Who knew?!
Go on to longer, more complex tunes. Resist the temptation to look up an ink version of the tune; there’s more vitamins and fun to be reaped from ear-alone efforts.
It may be next Christmas by now, but at some point, you may start itching for new challenges. OK: go back to that first simple tune and start decorating it like an audio Christmas tree. Add grace notes. Glisses. Turns. Vibrato. Squeeze in extra notes; leave some notes out. Switch registers. Swing. Syncopate. Start some notes a little early, not always right on the beat (a time-keeping source like a metronome or relative with pot and spoon helps). Or start an 8th note or so late, and then hurry a bit to catch up. Listen to the crooners, see how they do it: Bing, Rosemary, Frank, Dolly, Nat, Mel, Perry, and so on. Steal, uh, learn from them. Play their CDs, turn the volume up and play along.
Take your time. Add or change one thing at a time until you get comfortable with it. Then add one more thing. There’s no rush. Enjoy yourself, enjoy the music. Missed a note? Great: play that miss again and this time turn it into something else – a grace note, a tension-resolution adventure, and variation on the theme.
Want to unwrap still more musical presents? You may. Here are some:
•Play a recording (or enlist a similarly adventuresome musical friend) of the tune and this time play a harmony line with it (same rhythm, different note). Or make the line have a different rhythm – make it a counterpoint line. Or: find the roots of the chords (start with very simple tunes, like Silent Night). What’s really a hoot is to do this with two, three or even four friends. One plays melody, one or two harmony, one bass line (mostly roots), maybe on doing countermelodies or end-of-phrase fills. And you can always add somebody on some kind of basic percussion to cement the rhythm.
•Deconstruct a tune by taking melodic motifs from it and playing around with them: play them in sequences, transpose them, play them quicker or slower, wider or narrower, decorated to a fair-thee-well. This is especially fun with a friend, so that, say, you play down low the first four notes of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen over and over as a rhythmic ostinato while your buddy starts doing some Comfort And Joy moves in the middle and upper registers, and maybe works in some We Three Kings or Carol of the Bells around the edges.
•Change meters – try Jingle Bells as a waltz. Or Greensleeves as a march.
•Change modes. Try the First Noel or Silent Night in minor.
•If you’ve gotten anywhere near this far, you might want to take this baby out of the garage and take it on the road. Take your Personal Carol Experiences and play them for others – hospitals, assisted living home, shopping malls, music curriculum committee meetings, friends’ living rooms, and so on. You won’t have a music stand, so you can watch their faces as you create your magic. Better than Glögg!
Why let Bing and Rosemary have all the fun? These tunes can be the best toys you ever got, and you can play with them by yourself or share them with friends.
It kind of makes you wish there were carols for Valentine’s Day, Fourth of July, and Halloween.
But you can always make up your own new Not Christmas Holiday tunes for any occasion. I know, I know, they didn’t tell you, train you, or encourage you in music school to do any such thing. But I am telling you and giving you permission.
It’s my gift to you. Enjoy.