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Making Christmas carol piano teaching count! Karen Marshall’s Music Room

If just more than half a term is going to be dedicated to festive jingles it’s so important to make sure the material is a part of a wider curriculum to help ensure the music learning ‘counts’ but most importantly sticks.

A MUSIC:ED Sponsored Post supported by Hal Leonard Europe

Karen Marshall has started penning a regular blog series for Musicroom, called Karen Marshall’s Music Room. With over three decades of piano and music teaching experience, Karen is delighted to share her own pedagogical hints and tips and solutions to common piano teaching problems with Musicroom readers. She will also reveal her ‘go to’ books from her vast collection of old favourites, own titles and new discoveries that keep her students practising, motivated, progressing and (most importantly) loving music.

Today sees the first themed article Making Christmas Carol Teaching Count. Enjoy!


It was only the first week in October and already I’d gone to the top shelf of my music teaching collection and removed the three boxes of books with ‘Christmas’ written on them (perhaps it’s a Covid thing, as it’s the earliest it’s ever happened). Apologising to parents in advance, gradually children across my practice are allocated a Christmas collection, and without fail as the ‘said’ title arrives through the post – or previous books are recycled – enthusiasm manifests itself. The joy on one little girl’s face this week – when a Christmas book was given – was something I’d have loved to bottle to look at every day: it was gorgeous!

However, if just more than half a term is going to be dedicated to festive jingles it’s so important to make sure the material is a part of a wider curriculum to help ensure the music learning ‘counts’ but most importantly sticks.

So here are just a few thoughts on how to do this.

All students are different – meaning all teaching practices are too – hopefully though there might be something in here that will spark a new idea or simply validate what a wonderful job you are already doing!

There are three topics being covered here: curriculum, practice and performance; plus a glimpse into my top ‘go-to’ Christmas books all listed at the end of the post!

Curriculum

As part of my professional life, I work with students with specific learning difficulties like dyslexia. For some of these students, music learning (in particular notation reading) can be very challenging. What’s vital here – in my experience – is to ensure learning is systematic. ‘Moving from the known to the related unknown’ ensures that a student’s musical learning isn’t as much of a patchwork quilt as it could be. Everything done is carefully sequenced. Music is literally audited; here are a few examples:

  • Key signature (we don’t jump from G major to A flat major).
  • Time signature (for early beginners 6/8 is used with great care!).
  • What dynamics and tempo markings are they able to access well and most importantly if in fledgling stages making sure the score isn’t overloaded with terms.
  • Rhythm values – eg. If all are known, do they have the technique to play the semi-quavers evenly?
  • What is the next stage of learning? For piano teachers in the earlier stage of their career joining an organisation like The Curious Piano Teachers and having access to their Piano Framework can be helpful.

So, when selecting a Christmas collection it can be useful to see what the content is and ask the questions: Where does it fit in a student’s learning journey? How useful is it?

Practice and the best way to improve sight-reading

If a student is motivated to play material, then it nearly always results in piano practice. Perhaps not always the methodical type we as teachers may yearn for, but practice happens nonetheless!

During my usual Christmas half term’s teaching whole books of repertoire can be completed. This is the golden time to help improve sight-reading and general overall up-skilling of piano playing skills. If it’s such a valuable opportunity, then selection of the right material is vital. Building up a large collection of your own Christmas books (over time) enables a choice of material to be showcased before a new book is issued. That way, one knows the student will want to practise from it! Candid students in the past have taught me the hard way that my tastes and thoughts aren’t always in line with theirs.

Performance

It never fails to uplift me hearing about teachers’ creative ways to support piano performance at Christmas time. Over the years lots of ideas have come my way from many talented teachers who have generously shared them. Many of these ideas have proved successful within my own teaching practice: they’ve all helped to improve my student’s performance skills.

They include:

  • A video Christmas card for family members with a child performing their favourite carol.
  • Sending a video to family and friends of all siblings performing a different carol every day marking each day of advent.
  • Producing an You Tube video of a teacher’s entire piano practice performing carols.
  • A simple Christmas Concert either individual or as a group.
  • Videos of children performing a carol to raise money for a local charity.
  • A student creating their own Christmas concert to gain a high level Trinity Arts Award.
  • Christmas carol duet partnerships meeting once a week.

Just before this is ‘wrapped up’ (excuse the Christmas pun) here’s a glimpse of four of the main books that will be ordered for students from my teaching Christmas book collection this year. There’s something for all ages and stages!

Happy festive teaching everyone! I hope that you won’t have to listen to too many arrangements or Jingle Bells and a few new pieces will equally catch your students’ eyes!

Good luck and I look forward to being in touch again in my next blog very soon.

Warmest wishes, Karen Marshall


Karen Marshall’s Music Room picks!

My First Piano Adventures Christmas Book A (younger beginners) – Faber and Faber £3.99

Perfect for a 5- to 7-year-old beginner who has just started lessons and you’ve only just finished the black keys and are working on off-the-stage notation. I’ve currently four of these little treasures and parents have been asked to order this book.

Using black notes and off-the-stage notation there are some familiar pieces like Oh Christmas tree and Jingle Bells along with new compositions about all things Christmas! A small compact book (16 pages) with eight carols and Christmas calendar with activities on it. It’s been loved by so many of my students in previous years.

Get Set! Christmas Crackers (age 7 plus) – Karen Marshall and David Blackwell £7.99

Written four years ago now (back in the Christmas of 2017) and road-tested with my own students this book from five-finger first-hand positions to around Grade 2 level using a pedagogical progression. David Blackwell’s teacher accompaniments are brilliantly written to showcase the student but also not put them off playing! There are ‘colour-in’ visuals throughout, plus facts about the carols and additional improvisation and sight-reading activities.

There are a bumper 30 carols in there (40 pages) from Away in a Manger to We Three Kings, Jingle Bells to We Wish you a Merry Christmas. Do check out the independent review on Pianodao here. There are lots of additional free carols and practice tools (practice advent calendar, Christmas Tree and 12 Days Piano Activities) on Get Set Piano Free resource pages accessed on the Collins Music website.

Capturing the Spirit of Christmas (11 years plus including teens and adults – Grade 4 to 6) by Barbara Arens and Alison Mathews (£12.99)

Twelve carols (over 30 pages) with accompanying programme notes. The arrangements are beautiful and teenagers in particular love them!

Around grade 4 to 6, the pieces are packed with patterns making them quick to learn but also highly appealing to students who also love playing film music or a composer like Einaudi. The harmony is gorgeous and all arrangements highly pianistic – my teenage boys love it at much as the girls!

There’s a rich variety of time signatures but key signatures are not overly demanding. The technical demands included mean a student will really benefit hfrom oming in on their cantabile legato skills, chord voicing, balance of melody and accompaniment, even semi-quaver playing, legato thirds and so much more!

Pieces are arrangements and perfect for solo performance (these aren’t for sing alongs with family members). Pieces include some lovely original compositions from Barbara Arens and Alison Mathew along with many more gorgeous arrangements including Gabriel’s message, We Three Kings, The Sussex Carol, Deck the Halls, I Saw Three Ships & In Dulci Jubilo. Printed on high quality cream paper it’s terribly clear to read too!

The Faber Music Christmas Anthology (teens and adults) – £20

At an enormous 216 pages this is an ideal Christmas gift for an adult amateur or older teenager. So, if someone emails you to ask you if you have any recommendations for a stocking-filler for teens or adults then this is certainly one to consider. Good quality piano arrangements including every Christmas carol I’ve ever heard of.

There are over 60 carols (all the traditional ones) here at intermediate level to Advanced. Christmas related classical material too by great composers such as Vivaldi’s Winter along with Pop favourites such as Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and Last Christmas.

And for a Christmas project ……. do look at the various arrangements of Walking in the Air by Howard Blake. All available on music room from Easy Piano to intermediate level (which includes the solo vocal line! Students just love this piece!

Looking forward to seeing you all here again soon!

Warmest wishes, Karen

PS. Do head to Pianodao to see a much larger review round up of the best materials from Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Christmas material. Simply search Christmas 2021.