Vince GassiBy Vince Gassi
Six Cool Tips to Help You Break Out of the Holiday Concert Rut

Holiday concerts have a tendency to sneak up on us. It seems the school year just gets underway and before long, it’s time to start planning. I am always enlightened when attending other concerts as I often learn new “dos and don’ts”—that is, things I’m impressed by and things that make me say “hmm…note to self.” Given our wealth of experience with holiday concerts we might ask, “Why the need to start planning so early?”. Great question! The answer is that nothing we do at the last minute is ever our best work. Smooth flowing concerts don’t just get thrown together. There are many details to consider such as music acquisition and rehearsal, tickets, equipment rentals, audio, refreshments, set up crews, etc. Starting early means that you can be creative in your planning, have ample time to work out the details, and adjust if needed.

The trap is that it’s easy to lapse into HCR (Holiday Concert Rut) which can often result in a lackluster concert consisting of overused repertoire, disorganization, and a disinterested audience made up of parents who wish to leave the moment their child is finished performing regardless of what other ensembles have yet to perform. So let’s look at six cool tips to help break old habits and energize your next holiday concert.

Cool Tip #1 – Rep Awareness
It’s easy to fall back on the old standards that everyone is expecting to hear, however, variety is a good thing and there is plenty of published music available that is nontraditional. You’ll have to research a bit. Ask your colleagues in other schools what’s worked for them in the past. I’ve gleaned some great programming tips just by asking. Is there any repertoire that allows you to combine two ensembles, e.g. strings and percussion? What about a piece that features a soloist or an unusual instrument? Perhaps this is an opportunity for you to compose or arrange your own music to better suit your needs. Hey, just sayin’.

Cool Tip #2 – Event Flow
All music directors in the department should plan the flow of the concert together, sharing repertoire ideas and considering what it would be like to sit in the audience. Holiday concerts can be repetitive not only in the sense that the same or similar music is performed each year but also that there is overlap between ensembles. The pace of the concert should definitely be planned out and not be just a display of each ensemble. Audiences tend to tune out when they hear the same holiday selections from one ensemble that were just performed by the previous ensemble! Planning is critical even when there is only one conductor and one ensemble. If you were in the audience at your last holiday concert, what would your critique sound like? What would you change?

Cool Tip #3 – The Change-up
Why not consider a theme concert? How about holidays around the world or holiday music throughout history? Is there a MIDI program in your school? Take ten minutes to feature your young composers. Speaking of change-ups, if yours is a school with a uniform, consider a different approach. How about all black with red Santa hats and/or green reindeer antlers? You don’t need to go overboard and it may be a challenge to acquire as many hats as you have students. Just a few here and there is all it’ll take to set the tone (pardon the pun). What other alternative themes and wardrobe ideas can you come up with? Ask your students. They’re always willing to try new things.

Cool Tip #4 – The Pre-game Show (or Kids in the Hall)
How cool would it be to have one or more chamber groups playing in the lobby while people are entering? Placed in various locations in the lobby, hallways, or outside (if you are fortunate enough to live in a balmy clime), groups of three or four students could be serenading audience members before the concert, at intermission, or as they exit. We have Entr’actes and Exit Music in musicals? Aren’t our holiday concerts musical?

Speaking of musicals, if your Arts department is staging one soon, why not play a few selections at holiday time just to whet everyone’s appetite. It’s great advertising and a pleasant diversion from the regular holiday fare. Does every selection have to be a holiday piece anyway? Why not mix it up?

Cool Tip #5 – Toss the Salad

What about a change in the usual order of ensembles? It never hurts to “toss the salad” every so often. Do you usually start with Junior ensembles followed by more experienced ones? Mix it up. Nothing is written in stone. Would alternating work? Why not have the juniors and seniors play together on one selection?

Cool Tip #6 – Crews and Equipment
Well-trained crews can make a huge difference. What crews are needed for your concert? You’ll need to make a list and you can post sign-up sheets in the music room. Students love to volunteer for these duties, especially ones who aren’t on stage as much. What goes on behind the scenes is just as important. The stage crew will have to practice until they know their jobs and can execute them quickly and safely. Your physical setup may determine, to a large extent, the order in which your ensembles will perform. Consider ensemble placement and equipment needs (stands, chairs, risers, audio). By the way, do you need to rent audio or other equipment? What other crews are needed (e.g. tech, tickets, ushers, refreshments, setup, cleanup, etc.)?

Other Ideas
Have you invited an administrator to say “a few” words? I’ve found the best time to let them have the floor is during a setup change as it can smooth over a potential “dead spot”. It also gets your principal out to your events and they’ll be impressed when they see all the great work you do. Additionally, parents will get it that your program enjoys the support of the school community.

How about combining with other Arts departments for one or two selections? Adding an interpretive dance, drama tableau, or gallery walk featuring student art is a very cool way to enhance a concert. These other groups can be coordinated with your ensemble or perhaps as a break from them. One year, I taught music and drama and had short, one minute drama monologues presented between each ensemble. You may wish to consider another type of HCR; a Holiday Concert Raffle with cool prizes like iPods and iTunes gift cards. Proceeds can be shared between a charity of your choice and any music department needs you may have. It’ll also give the audience a change of pace. Do you interact with the audience as the conductor? Do you occasionally provide a brief introduction or background for a piece? Too much of this can be boring so be judicious. Perhaps you could have a student emcee or even the Phys. Ed. teacher. It’s good for other teachers to see what their students do outside of their departments and again, it provides variety. Do make sure you go to the next basketball game though. Support is a two way street.

One Final Suggestion
Each year, our music department has a carol sing-along to end the concert. Every student and teacher in our music department is present in the auditorium for the last selection of the night and, with the audience, sings a medley of carols to the accompaniment of the band. The room is packed, there are red hats, green reindeer ears, and most importantly, good cheer abounding.

Our holiday concerts shouldn’t be an onerous experience for anyone. It truly is a delightful thing to see and hear young people making music (good music!!). Planning early will allow you to pay attention to the finer points that add a touch of class to an event that could otherwise turn into a snoozer. Be creative. Have fun devising and implementing new and engaging ideas that will provide an enjoyable experience for all.

What are some of your favorite unique holiday concert activities?