If you think that writing about Christmas in October is a bit early, it’s even worse for me – I’m writing at the beginning of September, I’ve just dropped off Ollie for his first day at school, the sun’s still trying to shine and I’m still in shorts.
As musicians, Christmas can take us by surprise, despite all the early-warning signals in Tesco’s. Writing this article has prompted me to look in my diary and I’ve noticed with horror that I’ve already got 12 carol services booked in for this December – 6 of them are over 2 days, so this term I’m determined that I’m going to be ready! Also, I know that at the end of a long term I’ve got to have enough energy in the tank to survive the Christmas season. The key? Be prepared! I was a cub scout with the 1st Hednesford pack, and though I was never a sixer, or even a seconder, I remember the motto well, even if I haven’t always heeded it.
It’s well worth getting a programme for what you’re going to do for Christmas carol services together now so that nothing takes you by surprise.
There are roughly 2 areas that need to be thought through at this time of year: first, what expectations do your congregation and their guests have when they come to a carol service? Second, what resources do you need in order to meet those expectations?
1) Expectations of congregation and guests. Christmas is a time when, probably more than any other time, we have to leave all our personal preferences at the door for the sake of the guests. They want to sing carols and feel all Christmassy. They want (and I think I’m allowed to say what my boss thinks they want)…the tingle factor. What I certainly am not saying is that our job is to manipulate people’s emotions so that they go away feeling satisfied that they’ve had their annual spiritual ‘top-up’. However, we won’t help them to focus on the message of Christmas if we send them into shock with a rendition of Once in Royal played on a banjo and a set of spoons. If there’s to be any offence, we want the offence to be as a result of hearing the gospel clearly taught and sung, not because we have been lazy in our musical preparation and presentation.
We musicians often forget that people want to sing carols at carol services. We can sometimes think that we’ve got to do all sorts of musical fireworks to give the guests the Wow factor. In my experience, though, too many of the performance items produce less of a ‘Wow’ and more of a ‘Whoa’. People want to sing carols, so they come expecting to belt out Hark the Herald, O come all ye faithful, O little town and Once in Royal. These are your A-list carols, if you like. I usually use all four of them, or at least three of them. After that, all you need are one or two B-listers like Angels from the realms of glory or Joy to the World and everyone’s happy (except for the writers of the carols I’ve just consigned to the B-list in my unquestionable wisdom). One of the B-list carols could be more contemporary (like Townend’s From the Squalor) if that’s the style of music your musicians are used to.
Once these are in place, there’s probably only time for one solo/choir item, because you don’t want to tire guests out before they hear the talk, and that brings us to point 2:
2) Resources needed. Guests (and their bringers) are much happier with quality than quantity. Even though many musicians may be keen to help out, only use those you can really trust to do a good job. To a regular church member, the willing bass who sings like a donkey is a willing servant. To the guest he’s a donkey. Choose an item/items that will involve the minimum rehearsal for people with busy lives so that you can do it well. I’ve built up a small selection of choir/solo items which have good words and don’t take too much work to put together, but seem to produce that Christmas tingle. One of the most common requests every Christmas is ‘anyone got any tenors?’. Don’t worry about having no tenors. You can do something really effective with just one or two singers if they’re up to it. I have plenty of tenor-less resources (not that we don’t love tenors!)
Finally, if there are any brass players at all, ring them up now and book them in. Even if they can’t play any more, get them to sit there holding their tuba or whatever they own just for the visual effect.
To conclude – be prepared: keep it simple, keep the tingle, don’t worry about the tenors. Merry Christmas everybody.
Richard Simpkin- St Helen’s Bishopsgate