Category Archives: Secular Choir

Holiday Celebrations for All: Creating a Balanced Concert Program

Sally K. AlbrechtBy Sally K. Albrecht
Composer, Conductor, Clinician

With holiday concerts just around the corner, many choral directors just like you are making their final selections. As you review your choices, make sure you have covered many different styles, emotions, and types of celebrations. Know who makes up your audience and tailor your selections accordingly.

Do you travel with your choirs or small ensembles to sing at local retirement homes or hospitals? If so, consider including a familiar holiday song, carol, and/or sing-along. Try to alternate: a familiar with an original, a Christmas carol with a winter song, a spiritual with a novelty or multicultural number, etc.

Consider planning “sets” of music lasting around 15-20 minutes each, comprised of five to six contrasting chorals in a variety of styles and keys. Here are a few suggestions:

41815 – Sing We Now of Christmas – French Carol/arr. Mark Hayes
41670 – The Nutcracker . . . In About Three Minutes – Tchaikovsky/arr. Mark Weston
41721 – Winter Sings Her Song – David Waggoner
41892 – The Little Drummer Boy – arr. Philip Kern (a cappella)
41689 – A Wreath of Carols – Medley/arr. Andy Beck
41665 – The Little Cradle Rocked – Spiritual/arr. Jay Althouse

41677 – Tell Me, Tell Me! (A Christmas Spiritual) – Sally K. Albrecht, Jay Althouse
41639 – Carol of the Snow – Ukrainian Folk Song/arr. Ruth Morris Gray
41684 – Merry Christmas Madrigal – Mary Ryan, Donald Moore (a cappella)
41686 – A Hanukkah Wish (with “Maoz Tzur”) – Andy Beck
40056 – Ding Dong! Merrily on High – French Carol/arr. Gary E. Parks
41740 – Jolly Old Saint Nick! – Traditional Carol/arr. Alan Billingsley

41778 – Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas! – Mary Donnelly, George L. O. Strid
41579 – Hear the Bells – Dave Perry, Jean Perry
41662 – Angels in the Snow – Sally K. Albrecht, Jay Althouse
41768 – Cartoon Christmas – Medley/arr. Andy Beck
41736 – A Still, Silent Night – Austrian Carols/arr. Sally K. Albrecht
41660 – Shoulda Been a North Pole Elf – Andy Beck, Brian Fisher

40060 – Star Carol – Cathryn Parks, Gary Parks
41857 – Christmas Star (from Home Alone 2) – arr. Tom Fettke, Thomas Grassi
41672 – The Nutcracker . . . In About Three Minutes – Tchaikovsky/arr. Mark Weston
41775 – Sending You a Little Christmas – arr. Jay Althouse
41764 – Carols from the British Isles – Medley/arr. Douglas E. Wagner
41658 – Light a Candle – Andy Beck (opt. VideoTrax)

41797 – At Christmas Time – Clara B. Heath, Greg Gilpin
39875 – A Doo-Wop Christmas (With You) – Kirby Shaw (a cappella)
39802 – Carol of the Star – Donald Moore
41783 – Grown-Up Christmas List – arr. Mark Hayes
41647 – Bethlehem Spiritual – Donald Moore (a cappella)
41664 – Jingle Bells (Sort Of) – James Pierpont/arr. Jay Althouse

(Please note that many of these selections are available in multiple voicings.)

Hand out mittens and scarves or even small strings of jingle bells to your audience members to wear or use on a sing-along. If you need to extend your performance time, ask several students to prepare solo/duets or feature small ensembles on well-known holiday favorites. I’ve made use of Joy! A Carol Collection (arr. Jay Althouse) at several holiday events. It includes bright and fresh a cappella arrangements of 20 different carols. Singing along certainly gets everyone in the holiday spirit!

12 Tips for the First Week of School

By the Alfred Music Choral and Classroom Editors

It’s that perfect time of year—last year’s school year is in the books, summer vacations are upon us, and September is waiting with promises of new music and fresh opportunities. Whether you’re returning to an established program or stepping into your classroom for the first time, start off on the right foot with these 12 tips for the first week of school, as recommended by the Alfred Choral and Classroom editors.

Learn your students’ names. Consider greeting each student at the door as they enter. For an especially large group, use nametags until you have every one learned. Students will be responsive and respectful when addressed by name.

Jump right into the music. Kick off your year with a fun song that can come together in just one or two rehearsals. Instant success will give students the confidence they need for more challenging repertoire. And opening the year with a “student favorite” will motivate them for the year ahead.

Provide a good model. If you desire rehearsals that start on time, start teaching on timeIf you value beautiful tone quality, demonstrate beautiful tone quality. If you enjoy positive and uplifting rehearsals, lead positive and uplifting rehearsals. Students will mirror what they observe.

Establish the rules. “Welcome to choir. We will start every rehearsal on time. Please throw away your gum as you enter the room. I expect you to have a pencil in your folder at all times. And thank you for not talking when I’m working with another section.”

Set the bar high. Why save the best stuff for performances only? Make the most of every rehearsal and class period by demanding quality at all times. Students will always rise to the challenge, and soon the highest of expectations will be met—and even surpassed!

Add music theory and history to your curriculum. This will raise student interest and provide both the context and background for them to gain a deeper understanding of the music they are learning. Inevitably, this will shine through, enhancing their performances during the year.

Get to know the support staff. Your school secretary will be so helpful when it’s time to print programs. Custodians will spend plenty of time setting up and taking down the choral risers. And many off-site performances will be made possible thanks to the head of transportation.

Schedule everything you can. Teachers, parents, and students are busier than ever. Take the time to put together a master calendar of all concerts, festivals, and other activities for the year that you are aware of, and then pass it along to everyone who needs to know.

Communicate with parents. Obtain students’ and parents’ e-mail addresses and telephone numbers. Organize the e-mail addresses in a folder on your computer so that you can immediately and effectively communicate details about your program.

Set up a substitute book. Absences are bound to occur during the school year, whether due to illness (yours or a relative’s) or a conference. Having a substitute book prepared will give you peace of mind and the knowledge that your sub has been provided with lesson plans that they can easily implement.

Reflect. Take some time at the end of the first week (or every week) to review each class/group, assess their progress, and affirm that you are heading in the right direction.

Remember that you aren’t perfect. We all have days when what we have planned for the classroom simply doesn’t work, and that’s ok! Learn from those  mistakes and continue to believe in yourself and your students. Celebrate the small victories along the way!

An Invitation from Andy Beck

Andy BeckGreetings music educators! As the school year comes to a close and final performances, evaluations, and grades are complete, I’d like to extend a warm invitation for you to join me at a summer reading session near you. Together with fellow music educators and other outstanding clinicians, we will explore and discover new choral and classroom materials, handpicked and highly recommended. What can you expect when you attend? Here are some highlights:

We will SING!
The very best way to select a piece of music is to sing it. And just imagine the beautiful sounds we will make in a room filled with choral directors and music educators. Along the way, I will emphasize teaching techniques, programming suggestions, and creative performance ideas for all of the materials included in your complimentary packet.

We will LAUGH!
After all, you’ve taken a day out of your brief summer vacation to attend, so let’s have some fun. We’ll probably share a chuckle at ourselves or each other, have a giggle at a clever novelty song or two, and every so often, we’ll crack up at a humorous anecdote about our ever-entertaining students.

We will SHARE ideas!
Over the years, I’ve gathered some useful teaching tidbits that I enjoy sharing throughout the day. If you have a great tip you’d like to impart, please do. We can all learn so much from each other. And with your permission, I’ll pass your idea along to the many other talented music educators that I will have the opportunity to meet this summer.

We’ll GET ORGANIZED for next year!
Be sure to bring a pencil so that you can keep lists and mark materials that you enjoy as we review them. Then later you can take a closer look at each item and even purchase or order on the spot. There will be outstanding choral music, vocal warm-ups, sight-singing books, teacher texts, musicals, and more. By the end of the day, you will be well on your way to having everything you need for the coming school year.

We might even DANCE!
Those of you who know me will attest to my enthusiasm for easy and effective riser choreography. On a few pieces, I may invite you to try a few of the moves, and I’ll model effective ways to teach these routines to your singers.

We will INSPIRE each other!
I get so much from my interaction with music teachers like you. Your dedication to education is truly inspirational! In return, I’ll do my very best to demonstrate positive teaching strategies, offer words of praise and encouragement, and share ideas that will motivate you and your students alike. When all is said and done, you’ll be recharged and ready to embrace the coming school year.

There’s no doubt about it—music teachers are amazing. We are passionate about our craft. We care deeply about our students. We embrace music as a powerful art form. We realize that, through our music and our everyday actions, we teach so much more than music. Through the choice of repertoire, not only do we educate those who are in our classrooms, but we also entertain and inspire hundreds more who attend our concerts. Along the way, we face challenges, but never lose sight of the song that lies within. I look forward to sharing my song … and hearing yours.

See you soon,
Andy Beck

P.S. Mention this article to me at a summer event to receive a free gift from Alfred Music. But, shh—this is a special offer, exclusively for Ledger Lines readers.

Click here for a complete list of Andy’s upcoming workshops and reading sessions.

Learning to Listen to My Heart

Katie KriedlerA Student’s Reflection on Selecting Music as a Career
By Katie Kriedler

The world has always encouraged us to “do what we love to do.” At age seven, I remember standing on stage in church to sing my first solo. Although I was incredibly scared of everyone (and my nerves were so bad that my legs were shaking), there was something bigger keeping me up on that stage. That was the first moment I decided that music was what I loved to do.

I was lucky enough growing up to have all the encouragement and inspiration a little girl could dream of. It has always been the people around me that have kept me moving forward—my mother, most of all. For as long as I can remember, my mother was driving me to and from hundreds of music practices, dance lessons, and dress rehearsals. She was the one who picked out the songs for my winning performances, the one who sat in the living room and listened to me practice over and over, and the face in the front row each time I got on stage.

I was also blessed in being surrounded by the best musicians during my time at school. Most importantly, my music teachers have been a huge impact. They are the ones who deserve the credit for my musical successes. Teaching me to sing or to play an instrument is one thing, but they have done so much more. They took a timid, seven year old girl who loved to sing, and instilled in her all the best qualities of determination, perseverance, and passion for music. There is no greater way to grow as a musician.

Junior year of high school is notorious for being the most difficult year for any high school student. My junior year, I was faced with many challenges in my life. I was trying to balance AP courses, running for student body president, auditioning for the school musical, and still trying to have a social life. I was applying for every scholarship I could get my hands on, deciding on one college, and choosing between majoring in something “realistic” or following my passion—music.

Meanwhile, my family was dealing with bad news that flipped our world upside-down. In June 2010, before the school year began, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. So this year, rather than getting rides to rehearsals, I was giving my mom rides to chemotherapy. Rather than being an average teenager at night, I was taking care of my ill mother. On Christmas Eve that year, my parents sat us down and told me, my brother, and my sister that there was nothing more the doctors could do—the cancer was terminal.

I lost so much when I lost my mother the next year. I lost my motivator, my inspirer, and my number one fan. The year ended with my decision to pursue something other than music. I turned all my musical ambitions into nothing more than a dream I once shared with my mom. I thought I was done with music, and that I could never follow my dreams without her.

During my first year at the State University of New York at Cortland, I heartbreakingly set aside music as a hobby. Yet no matter how much my studies piled up, I found myself craving to perform, reaching out for every opportunity to play my music. My friends and classmates noticed even before I did—they saw what my mother and teachers had always seen in me. Everything that I thought I had lost with my mother was actually still with me because of my music.

I am proud to say that I have chosen to pursue music as a career. It has carried me so far in my life, and I am excited to see where it can take me in the future. The way I see it is this: the world has always encouraged us to “do what we love to do.” But other forces in the world will tell us to “find a good paying job” or to “be more realistic.” We have to be careful of who we listen to. I chose to listen to those who love me and those who inspire me. And even more so, I chose to listen to the music in my heart.

Favorite Resources for Middle School Chorus

Anna WentlentBy Anna Wentlent, Managing Editor of School Choral Publications

Middle school. Those two words convey so much: energy, attitude, emotion, potential, change, diversity, development, acceptance, sensitivity, drama, peer approval, curiosity, creativity . . . the list could go on and on. Today, let’s focus on just one of those words: potential. While this age group can be difficult to work with, middle school is where future choral musicians are born. Here are a few resources to help you along the way.

Warm-Ups and Sight-Singing
As you know, this is the most important part of your choral rehearsal. There comes a moment in every school year when the calendar suddenly shrinks: there’s only a month left until the concert, and two rehearsals are going to be taken away by assemblies, not to mention the possibility of snow days! In those moments of panic, it’s easy to breeze by sight-singing and dive directly into note-learning. But the note-learning will happen much more easily if your students are properly prepared to read music, and to sing that music with healthy technique.

A choral rehearsal is no different than any other practice. Think about a basketball team: a good coach doesn’t spend two hours of practice playing full-court five-on-five games. Instead, they use that time to develop the skills, strength, and agility necessary to play the game well. So it should be with a choral rehearsal. (And if your music is causing that much stress, it’s probably too difficult. Don’t forget about unison and 2-part literature—setting up a successful and musical performance is far more valuable than slogging through music that is too advanced for your singers).

So take time at the beginning of rehearsal to completely warm-up. The Choral Warm-Up Collection and The Complete Choral Warm-Up Book  are indispensable resources. Focus your students as they walk in the door with a few familiar exercises, and then move on to specific warm-ups that address issues from their performance music. End with a few rounds or vocalises. Round We Go and Rounds for Everyone from Everywhere are both teacher favorites. And Andy Beck’s new collection, Vocalize!, offers 45 accompanied vocal warm-ups that actually teach technique. A few clever titles: “Drop Your Jaw,” “Take Time to Breathe,” and “Listen and Blend.” This instructional book is just right for middle school singers.

Then devote as much time as possible to sight-singing and rhythm exercises. In addition to the standard method Sing at First Sight, consider supplemental exercises from Ready, Set, Rhythm!, a collection of 80 sequential lessons that teach the elements of rhythmic notation through movement-based class activities—perfect for breaking up the middle of a long rehearsal! Each 10-minute lesson is presented in lesson plan format with National Standards.

Changing Voices
Middle school boys arrive at the choir room door dealing with two important issues: changing voices and motivation (which really boils down to confidence). Middle school students desperately want to be good at something. Help them to sing their best by assigning them to the correct voice part—soprano, alto, or baritone. If you don’t make a big deal of it, your students won’t either.

If you have time, single out some time to work with the boys by themselves, whether it’s during scheduled lessons, monthly afterschool rehearsals, or sectionals during regular class. This will allow you to focus on their particular needs, monitor voice changes during the school year, and work without the distraction of the opposite gender. Jill Gallina’s For the Boys is a fantastic collection of songs for boys and young men. It includes classics such as “Buffalo Gals,” “The Drunken Sailor” and “John Henry” in singable arrangements for developing male voices.

Attention spans are low in middle school, and that means that you have to come to rehearsal prepared with a detailed plan. Leave very little down time with your middle schools singers: start class on time and quickly transition from one activity to the next. University of Florida professor Dr. Russell Robinson models rehearsal techniques on his DVD Middle School Singers: Turning Their Energy into Wonderful Choirs. It includes examples from a convention appearance and regular classroom.

No matter what, end every rehearsal with a positive musical experience. On the first day of the year, that may be as simple as singing a four-measure unison phrase in tune. Later on, it may be the performance of a passage of harmony with shaping and dynamics. You know your students; set achievable goals and work towards them, bit by bit, taking pride in each success along the way. As your students walk back out into the hallway after class, they should take with them a feeling of accomplishment and self-worth. And that feeling is what creates lifelong musicians.

“Rhythms of One World” International Choral Festival

Gary FryGary Fry’s “Rhythms of One World,” is not only an exciting world-music choral from Alfred Music, it is also the title song of the United Nation’s international choir festival, which aims to celebrate cultural diversity and mutual understanding through choral singing.

The first “Rhythms of One World” was held in New York City in the summer of 2012, featuring choirs from across the globe: South Africa, Luxembourg, Canada, Trinidad and Tobago, Australia, Norway, and the United States. It culminated in a joint performance in the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations headquarters. This festival is unique from others of its kind, as it focuses not only on great performances, but also on the role of the universal language of music in promoting intercultural understanding, brotherhood, and peace.

The 2014 festival will be held in Geneva, Switzerland. It will open with a concert at the UN headquarters in Geneva, celebrating the anniversary of the signing of the UN charter, and will include other significant performances in iconic Swiss venues, by both youth and adult choirs from all nations and styles, including everything from folklore, sacred, and classical to contemporary and national pop music. All choirs are welcome to apply.

For more information on this inspiring organization, visit the website of the Friendship Ambassadors Foundation at

High School A Cappella… What’s All the Buzz About?

Brody McDonaldBy Brody McDonald
High school a cappella is all the rage right now. It has enormous buzz. Why is that? Why is there such an explosion of a cappella in the high school ranks?

A cappella is exploding in the high school ranks because kids love…

  • Music that is familiar. Students have always asked, “Can we sing (insert song from radio here)?” That song might not be appropriate for a freshman mixed choir, but it certainly will work for an a cappella group.
  • The social aspect of singing together. A cappella is the new chamber music. It follows in the footsteps of doo-wop and barbershop, all the way back to madrigal singing. It is the epitome of recreational singing.
  • Singing anywhere, any time, at the drop of a hat. High school kids like to show off, entertain each other, etc. They’ll sing spontaneously in public no matter what, but there’s a better chance of getting your a cappella group together than having a balanced set of parts from your 40-voice chamber choir. Plus, it seems natural to sing popular music that gets radio airplay for the public.
  • Making funny mouth sounds. Yeah, young people like that. But in a cappella, those funny mouth sounds can translate into great performances.
  • The challenge of singing without a net. Of course, the challenge and joy of singing without a backing track or piano accompaniment isn’t exclusive to contemporary a cappella groups.  But with a cappella, it’s always present.
  • Singing on microphones and possibly with “toys” (pedals, throat mics, etc.). Young people like technology, ergo young singers like all of the gear that goes with a cappella singing.

And on the other end, directors love…

  • Groups that can be any size or configuration (male, female, or mixed). Choir programs come in a wide variety of sizes and ability levels. A cappella groups can be tailored to fit the program more easily than many other options.
  • Feeding the tigers. By this, I mean giving the best singers of the program a little extra red meat to chew on. A cappella music is challengingPop music often has simple solo lines, but duplicating the instrumental backs and the drum kit? That requires musical ability.
  • The growth that comes from student empowerment. A cappella groups typically have internal leadership opportunities: section leaders, a student music director, a merchandise manager, sound technicians, etc. In addition, a cappella groups are typically add-ons to an existing choir program and require the singers to do extra practice outside of rehearsal to make things go smoothly.
  • The chop building that comes from small ensemble work. In addition to the challenge of recreating a band with only the human voice, there’s the added benefit that most a cappella groups are 16-20 members or less. Whenever singers have to function with four or less singers on a part, they’ll get stronger.
  • Having a portable group for community relations. This is the very reason I started an a cappella group—I couldn’t take my 40-student show choir to every community performance request. Issues of size and transportation are much less with a cappella groups than show choirs or standard concert choirs.
  • Recruitment when younger singers hear “music they know.” Meeting new singers where they are is helpful. Thanks to a cappella, singing can indeed look cool. Consider the average middle school students that directors are trying to persuade to join choir. Sing them a spiritual and they might like it. Bust out a vocal percussion solo that transitions into an a cappella rendition of “Gangnam Style” and it’s game over.

A cappella still has some obstacles to overcome in the high school world because:

  • Directors fear “bad pop singing.” Some directors don’t yet understand that good technique is required in any vocal genre. Yes, there are a cappella groups that sing badly. There are also gospel choirs, concert choirs, and musical theater productions that are riddled with bad singing. But in every genre, there are also performers who use great technique. The genre and the level of technique are not linked, thankfully.
  • The tail wags the dog. Yes, this happens. It happens with show choirs, a cappella groups, vocal jazz ensembles, and more. The only way the tail will wag the dog in a program is if the director allows it. Directors must remember that they set the vision of their program and must keep their singers “eating a balanced diet.” All of my Eleventh Hour a cappella singers are members of my AA-level Symphonic Chorale.
  • Directors have little experience with it as a genre. Before forming Eleventh Hour, I didn’t have any experience with a cappella. That was scary. We all fear the unknown a little bit, and fear our own potential incompetence even more. But there are many resources available now that didn’t exist ten years ago. Directors, you should start by dipping a toe in the water and learn as you go. You can do this. Many, many people are willing to support you on your journey.
  • Directors might not know how to deal with sound gear. You don’t have to know everything all at once. You can start without sound gear and add it in as you learn (or don’t add it in at all). There are many resources for learning about live sound reinforcement, as well as contractors in every market who will appraise your situation, advise you on purchases, and train you on equipment.
  • Directors are lost as to how to find music. To be fair, there isn’t a lot of music available off the rack. However, there’s more coming every year. [Editor's Note: Click here for Alfred's contemporary a cappella publications.]

In short, it seems like a risk. And … that’s true. It can be a risk. But isn’t everything new inherently a risk? Some people will avoid change, but I think it’s intoxicating. Learning is my drug.

Brody McDonald is the choral director at Kettering-Fairmont High School in Ohio. He is at the forefront of the contemporary a cappella movement, and the author of A Cappella Pop: A Complete Guide to Contemporary A Cappella Singing. Choirs under his direction have performed regularly for state and national conventions, and appeared with artists such as Kenny Rogers, LeAnn Rimes, and the Beach Boys. His award-winning high school a cappella group, Eleventh Hour, was featured on NBC’s The Sing-Off. He recently joined the faculty at Wright State University to develop an a cappella program, featuring the new group Ethos. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, he was a member of the Barbershop Harmony Society’s International Collegiate Quartet Champion, Stop the Presses.

Reflecting on the Season

Michael SpresserBy Michael Spresser,
Director of Pop and Lawson-Gould Publications

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.” ― A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Traditionally, November is a month reminding us of the blessings and good that surround us. For music educators, it is also a month of much preparation for the upcoming holiday season and all it brings. In the midst of rehearsals, concert planning, faculty meetings, fund-raising and so on, it is important to remind ourselves that there are students and parents who are grateful for all we do. Many times that gratitude may be unspoken, but we can see it if we look closely:

• the student eyes that light up when they finally grasp a new concept
• the sheer joy that performing often brings to both performer and audience
• the way music positively affects our schools and communities
• the student who becomes a music teacher because of our influence

As we head into this busiest of seasons, I join my editorial colleagues, Andy Beck and Anna Wentlent, in sharing our gratitude for everything you do in the classroom and beyond. We appreciate your continued support of Alfred Music and encourage you to remember that even as life gets busier, even when you are too busy with “non-teaching” responsibilities, even if at times you feel you have a very small heart, there is always something which can fill your heart and mind with gratitude.

The History of the Christmas Carol

Anna WentlentBy Anna Wentlent
Managing Editor, School Choral Publications

Not a holiday season goes by that we musicians are not involved in a performance of some kind, whether it be a professional concert, school performance, church pageant, or sing-a-long around the piano at home. Undoubtedly, carols will form the bulk of the repertoire. More than any other time of year, the holidays are distinguished by music. We have a shared repertoire of music that is known and sung by people of all ages and ethnicities.

Hymns written specifically for the holiday of Christmas first appeared in fourth-century Rome. These were Latin statements of Church doctrine, such as “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” which is still sung in churches today. In the twelfth century, Adam of St. Victor, a Parisian monk, began to derive music from popular songs, introducing something a bit closer to the traditional Christmas carol that we know today.

Under the influence of Francis of Assisi, a tradition of popular Christmas carols in native languages began to develop in England, France, Germany, and Italy. The first documented appearance of English carols is seen in the work of chaplain John Awdlay, who lists twenty-five “caroles of Cristemas” that were sung by groups of “wassailers” who went from house to house. Derived from traditional drinking and folk songs, these songs were often accompanied by dancing (in fact, the word “carol” comes from an Old French word meaning “circle dance”) and were probably written for many important celebrations, such as New Year and the harvest, in addition to Christmas.

Originally, carols were festive, up-tempo, and followed similar Medieval chord patterns; classic examples of this are “Good King Wenceslas” and “The Holly and the Ivy.” Amateurs outside easily sang them. But by the Victoria era, carols were being sung in churches and performed by local orchestras and choirs. This time period is when many of the carols that we sing today were first written and published. New carols in varying styles were added to the repertoire, such as Gustav Holst’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” and Franz Gruber’s “Silent Night.”

“Silent Night” was first performed on Christmas Eve in 1818 in the small town of Oberndorf, Austria. The young priest of the parish church, Father Joseph Mohr, brought his lyrics to organist Franz Gruber just before the evening service and asked him to compose a melody and guitar accompaniment. Since that first performance, “Silent Night” has become one of the most well-known Christmas carols of all time. During the World War I Christmas truce, an unofficial ceasefire on Christmas Eve in 1914, it was one of the carols that British and German soldiers sang together between the trenches, each in their own language.

Today carols continue to be written and performed in both sacred and secular settings. We hope that you will include one or two (or more) on your program this holiday season, whether traditional or entirely new. Who knows what piece will be the next “Silent Night?”

An Interview with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are the Tony-nominated songwriters of the Broadway musical A Christmas Story, which opened in November 2012 and enjoyed a critically acclaimed, record-breaking run at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Read on to learn about how they adapted this beloved holiday classic for the stage.

How did you become involved with the musical version of A Christmas Story?
Similar to how an actor auditions for a show, we were actually approached by the producers of A Christmas Story and asked to submit songs to “audition” in a way. We absolutely love the movie and were ecstatic when we were chosen to write the music for the production at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater.

How did you go about adapting the story to be told with music?
There was a story in place—a structure that already works. Since it’s a holiday staple, we wanted to honor people’s favorite parts of the film and enhance them for the musical stage without tampering with them too much. For example, Ralphie’s obsession with the Red Ryder® Carbine-Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle was part of the movie, but we were able to really explore and expand on that through the song “Ralphie to the Rescue.” If Ralphie wanted to be a cowboy then we could make him into a cowboy fighting off Indians, bank robbers, and old style western villains in a six-minute dance number. The fantasy scenes in the movie were perfect for becoming musical numbers.

Were there any characters for which you particularly enjoyed writing?
We’re really proud of the song “Just Like That.” At its core, A Christmas Story is about nostalgia and remembering your own childhood. In this song, we see a mother trying to capture that one moment as her kids are growing up too quickly. This is one of the moments in the musical that didn’t exist in the film, so it gave us the opportunity to explore the mother’s character and make her the emotional anchor of the show. It’s really rewarding, because audiences have really responded to the moments in the show that have more heart.

In your writing partnership, which comes first—the music or the lyrics or does it vary?
We have been lucky to have the chance to speak to several writing teams and explore how they work with each other. Because of those conversations, we try and push each other so that we both end up feeling responsible for the entire song. Neither the music nor the lyrics should overshadow the other. We’re interested in finding the place where music and lyrics really meet.

Much of our time collaborating is spent discussing exactly what we want our songs to say. We each have strengths that compliment each other well, including greater strengths in music and lyrics. But in the end, it’s a song in which (hopefully) the words and music are seamlessly woven together and you can’t tell what’s what. But that brings us back to the arguing… hammering out all those details and deciding where we want the song to go, what its message should be, what the character is feeling… that all usually happens before a note or word is written. Then sometimes we start with the music and sometime we start with the lyric. There’s really no formula for it at all—it’s always changing!

What advice do you have for young composers in middle school, high school, and college?
When we were first starting to write our show Edges, it was when things like YouTube and Facebook were just beginning. That allowed us to use the new media to get our music out without having to have complete productions mounted. Getting your music out there is the most important thing. But remember that whatever you post might live forever—be judicious and smart when posting. The only way to get better at composing is to keep composing. Don’t stop writing!

About Benj Pasek and Justin Paul:
The Broadway musical A Christmas Story opened in November 2012 and enjoyed a critically acclaimed, record-breaking run at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. In addition to Benj and Justin’s Best Score nomination, A Christmas Story also received Tony nominations for Best Musical and Best Book. The holiday musical was named one of the Top 10 Shows of 2012 by Time Magazine, shared recognition as the #1 Musical of 2012 in USA Today and received Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations for Outstanding New Broadway Musical. Benj and Justin’s score also received a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Music.

Benj and Justin are both graduates of the University of Michigan. They are the recipients of the 2011 Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theatre from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a 2011 Sundance Institute Fellowship, the 2011 ASCAP Richard Rodgers New Horizons Award, the 2011 ASCAP Songwriters Fellowship Award, and a 2007-2008 Dramatists Guild Fellowship. They are the youngest recipients of the Jonathan Larson Award (2007) in the foundation’s history. They have participated in ASCAP’s Johnny Mercer Songwriters Project and were named one of Dramatist Magazine’s “50 to Watch” in contemporary theatre.

Alfred is proud to offer SATB, SAB, and 2-Part voicings of “Counting Down to Christmas” from A Christmas Story, arranged by Greg Gilpin. Click here for more information.