With Christmas less than three months away, many musicians have already started making selections and planning rehearsals. Our guest author and composer for this week, Benjamin Kolodziej, shares some of his favorite tips for preparing Advent and Christmas music.
It is an unfortunate reality that Advent and Christmas all too often strike fear in the hearts of church musicians. These seasons involve weeks, if not months, of preparation, all while juggling Christmas programs, working around extra services that overlap with times we would like to have rehearsal, and trying to keep Sunday-morning music functioning smoothly. Plus, our volunteers often find themselves having to choose between church music and family activities, adding to their stress as well as our own. This is the reality of the month, and no amount of lamenting can change that. But there are ways we can adapt our music ministry so we don’t lose the focus on Christ.
1. Simplify the Music for Advent
Thinking of Advent as a time of preparation, consider simplifying Advent music so Christmas itself can become all the more festive. For example, take the hymn “Creator of the Stars of Night” (LSB 351). We know from the information in the hymnal that it is chant-based, and the music is provided in unison only. This can be turned into a simple anthem or choral introit by having the choir (perhaps divided into men and women) alternate stanzas, maybe singing unaccompanied or to a simple accompaniment. Try adding a simple handbell ostinato—it really only needs to be one chord. If you intersperse the choral stanzas with a brief organ interlude (such as one of William Greene’s brief settings), you will have a veritable anthem that didn’t cause you too much stress or take excessive rehearsal.
Advent hymns are imbued with joyful expectation—so present them as such. Many of them can benefit from simple percussion, perhaps a hand drum or a snare, maintaining the driving triple rhythm. Something like this doesn’t require rehearsal time beyond Sunday morning, and the task could be delegated to musical youth or children.
2. Plan Early for Advent and Christmas
You have to prepare for Christmas anyway, so why not do it in the spring or summer when you have plenty of time to think creatively? One year, I wanted my choir to sing Bach’s cantata “Wachet Auf” (BWV 140). Although this cantata is one of Bach’s most accessible for the average parish choir, I knew that in order for my choir to sing their parts confidently, they had to know the music well. That necessitated starting to learn it shortly after Easter! Even though we only worked on about five minutes’ worth each rehearsal, the singers had a sense of the music before summer vacation and we could hit the ground running in autumn. To be able to do something like this, it helps to be able to see the entire semester in advance so you can ascertain how much time to devote to each piece.
3. Be Realistic about What and Whom You Have to Work with
The season requires a frank assessment of our resources. We know many of our musicians will be absent. So, plan on it! I find that a variety of instrumental and choral music on Christmas Eve will more than make up for the reduced number of singers in the choir. Even if you can’t manage SAB/SATB, utilize something two-part that is supplemented by your instrumentalists.
Consider the Christmas hymn “See amid the Winter’s Snow” (LSB 373). Try having an instrumentalist play the melody unaccompanied as the introduction, followed by various soloists or choir sections singing each verse, all to a quiet accompaniment. Then everyone can join on the refrain. It turns into an easy and festive anthem or even a concertato, depending on whether you would like the congregation to join. Or, utilize handbells or handchimes to proclaim the hymns. I like to use a descending D major scale on “Joy to the World” (LSB 387) to approximate a bell peal. You only need four players, with one bell in each hand, and they needn’t actually be “official” bell players. They just need to be able to keep a steady tempo.
If you keep the music simple in the right places and plan ahead to give musicians time to do their best, you can plan for “layers” of simplicity on Christmas to create a musically rich liturgical experience and better evoke the joy of Christ’s birth. Thus you can keep your eyes focused on Christ, having been edified in such a way that you can now make it to Epiphany!
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