Christmas Cracker # 1. Music choices

It’s the beginning of October as I write this, but in a bid to out-do Tesco I’m trying to get all Christmassy. I know that many like to think far ahead so that they can be fully prepared for December. This article’s for them. It’s also an alarm call to people like me, who wake up in a cold sweat a week before the first carol service with no ideas, and musicians who have already gone on holiday, not returning till mid-January.

For some music groups, this is easily the most stressful time of the year, so here are a few stress-busting tips that may help with the blood pressure.

If your church uses just a band, you’ll know that carols and guitars aren’t the best of friends. The best idea is to keep it very simple, turn the lights out and invest in a few candles so that the squeamish can’t see the rainbow straps. There’s no reason why carols can’t be done well by guitars, but it does take a lot of thought and practice. There’s a useful set of video clips by Dan Wilt on YouTube, where he demonstrates on his own guitar some tricks of the trade in playing carols. Just stick ‘Dan Wilt Carols’ into a Google search and you’ll be directed from there. Don’t be put off by the wallpaper in Dan’s living room. I’m sure it was put up by whoever lived there in the 60s.

If you’re thinking of getting a choir together and an expanded music group, the phone-calls need to be made now so that you’re sure of a good workforce. I always see who’s around first before deciding on any items that will be sung to the congregation.

Once you know who is available you’ll need to choose material that is Christ-centred so that we can present the Saviour of the world faithfully to those who are called to follow him. About four years ago I sat in the Barbican library and went through every one of its Christmas choir books looking for suitable songs. There is a dearth of good stuff that doesn’t encourage us to worship the Christmas trinity – Mary, Holly and Ivy. There are some compilations like ‘Carols for Choirs’ (Oxford) and ‘Sing Nowell’ (Novello), which are great for the big congregational carols. However, they are thin on solo items with theological and narrative integrity! Here are a few others that I’ve found to work well.

O holy night – Adolphe Adam. This is a famous song for solo voice, but the common English translation is poor, and not half as powerful as directly translating from the French. The original French talks about Jesus stemming his Father’s wrath. The ‘O holy night’ translation of those words talks about the soul feeling worth. We’ve sung it in French with the proper translation printed on the service sheet. I wouldn’t have a problem singing some of the Latin carols (eg Personent Hodie, Quem pastores, Resonet in laudibus) as long as the translations are clear to all. Consciences will differ on this.

A child is born – Samuel Scheidt. Short and energetic. Can be arranged very simply for any number of voices.

Star of the East – Reginald Heber, arranged by Alan Bullard. This is an arrangement of the hymn, ‘Brightest and best’. Four voices, with piano or organ. Most of the colour for this song is found in the accompaniment. It can be done with just a solo voice if the forces aren’t available.

In this poor stable – Richard Powell. Based on Isaiah 53, this is a cleverly written song for four voices and piano. Actually, there are only two different voices singing at any one time, so it’s very easy to learn. I will put this song on the website so that it can be downloaded.

For unto us a child is born – Handel. Here’s where you need competent singers and a small chamber orchestra. Get phoning now!

Only do what is easily in the capabilities of yourself and the musicians. We want to do a good job without being a drain on everyone’s resources and time at the end of a busy term. Even ‘In Christ Alone’ works very well as a ‘non-trad’ carol and will be fresh and different for the Christmas visitor without being an extra burden on musicians. We don’t need to worry about being too novel or creative. Carol services should only need one or two rehearsals. Music can be sent in advance to anyone who needs it.

One last thing. Brass is great. Nothing beats the warm glow of a trumpet or trombone for Hark the Herald. Pray that your brass players won’t go on holiday this Christmas. Alternatively, pray that brass players from other churches will go on holiday to your church.

Richard Simpkin

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