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Christmas bells

Christmas time is the only holiday that brings with it its own soundtrack: all those songs from the Renaissance tunes like What Child Is This to the pop/kitschy songs like Rudolph… Other holidays can have evocative music (romantic for Valentine’s Day, patriotic for 4th of July, scary for Halloween, and so on), but only Christmas has its own library of songs. The bad news is that it’s pretty much the same tunes every year and they get played to death in any/every public venue. The good news is that they are almost all really good tunes and that, even after endless overexposure, they are still fun to play or sing and nice to listen to.

We classical musician types are, however, missing out on one terrific experience that these songs could provide if only we would do it: playing them from the ear and the heart rather than from the printed page. The tunes have been ground into our chromosomes since our earliest goo-goo gah gah time – it’s pretty impossible to live in this culture and not know them extremely well. So they are prime material for figuring them out on our instruments by ear. So here’s a pre-New Year’s resolution: every day figure out a new carol of your choice on your instrument. Start with your most familiar key (usually C, for major). Figure out what scale step the first note is. And begin! You may miss a note here and there, but you can fix that on subsequent times through.

I know, I know, it can be scary at first. After all you might (gasp!) miss a note! But try it anyway, bypass your fear of mistakes and instead enjoy the sweet challenge of finding the tune by alloying your sense of pitch with your knowledge of the song’s intervals and thus develop your ear a bit further as well as your ability to find your way around (i.e. know what you’re doing) in a given key. After you find the notes in Key #1 (C?), go on to find them in Key #2 (F? Bb? B? Db?). Repeat until you’ve gone through all (reasonable) major keys. Kind of fun and empowering, isn’t it?

Start over. This time, decorate the tune like you decorated your tree – add some sparkle here, embellishment there. Grace notes. Syncopations. Start notes earlier or later (see the previous post Time to Be Frank for more ideas). Change articulations. Add or tweak the dynamic phrasing, and make it a little different every time through. Repeat in all keys.

For the underchallenged, repeat all the above in minor (or, if the tune was in minor, in major).

You’re not done. You’re just getting started. Now find another player (of any instrument) and the whole process over, this time with one of you on melody and the other accompanying in some way. Some ways:

•Parallel line in harmony (i.e. same rhythms)

•Countermelody (they move, you hold, and vice-versa)

•Drone (one note down low)

•Pulsed drone (one note with rhythm)

•Ostinato (a short idea, probably one that outlines the harmony and the rhythm)

•A mix of the above

It’s not yet New Year’s Eve and you’re still looking for additional fun? OK. Try this:

Pick a tune. Pick a prominent motif from it. Start improvising freely using that motif plus any others from tune. Twist it and tweak it. Add another player and make up a duet using that material (also as accompaniment material). Listen carefully to the other player as you invent. Steal a lot from them (giving is nice, but stealing is great when it comes to creating music together).

Don’t forget to record your adventures. Select the best later on. Send copies to your friends. Or transcribe and arrange it and make an ink copy. And send samples to me!

Ho ho ho

PS #1: Some more ways to carol on your horn: 1) While your spouse gives you a couple minutes off from being a sous-chef, grab your horn and play along with the Christmas music CDs that you have been playing in the living room. There is some chance that your teenage daughter will appear and bark some coal-in-stocking level critiques, but she will probably be absorbed in texting in her room, so you’re probably ok there. Anyway, you know the tunes, which are mostly simple and diatonic, so join in the melody. When the spirit moves you, start adding decorations, countermelodies, long tone backgrounds, fills at the end of phrases, etc. Total fun. 2) Ask someone in your family (or neighbor, passer-by, etc.) to play at the piano some carols from one of your carol books. Don’t look at or ask about the key. Just have them play the tune and then you join in in the same way you did (or would) with a CD of carols. 3) Have your pianist play one of the carol collections for horn and piano. You play the horn part, but since your part is mostly simple and diatonic (an accurate description of most carol melodies), add your own decorations, rhythmic tweaks, etc.

PS #2: One place you should consider playing carols aurally is in lessons with your students. It’s always a good idea to make an aural adventure like this one a regular part of a bit of warming up in the first part of a lesson (with, say, scales and arpeggios or non-holiday familiar tunes), but since students (even young ones) all know many of these holiday tunes, it’s the best time of the year to develop ears along with familiarity with keys, and have a lot of fun at the same time. Tell them that they have to play at least one new carol every day in at least two keys at home during the week. I have a 7th grade student who surprises me with what he comes up with every week. We play a carol in unison at the beginning of the lesson, then I go to harmony the second time through. Then I go to melody and tell him to make up an accompaniment and he does so with gusto. Sometimes he started ornamenting right away. I usually don’t tell him the key, just the first note (“Jingle Bells – chorus. Start on E”) and ask him afterwards what key we were in. I don’t critique his choices afterward. We just pick and new tune and do some more, and it stays fun and gets easier and easier pretty quickly. He enjoys the “game” and finds it normal to move to Db or B after C (it’s just another key, and it’s close by so it’s in a comfortable range). What’s happened lately is that when we finish the lesson playing duets from a book, and he is starting to add (now and then) his own decorations and interpretations to the written material, especially with endings, where he likes to go to a different chord tone or make it minor or add the b7. And he gives me this look: cool, huh?! He is just having fun; he doesn’t really realize that he is “thinking in music,” playing with understanding and imagination, not just reciting.

Why miss this golden opportunity for technique, musical understanding, aural training, and fun? Tis the season to play carols!