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Friday, September 14, 2012

It’s That Time of Year (Christmas, Part 1)

Frosted window panes
Candles gleaming inside
Painted candy canes on the tree
Santa's on his way,
He's filled his sleigh
With things, things for you and for me

It's that time of year
When the world falls in love
Every song you hear
Seems to say
Merry Christmas
May your New Year dreams come true
And this song of mine
In three quarter time
Wishes you and yours
The same thing too

-- The Christmas Waltz by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne

My dad had an album of old standards in the piano bench, and I fell in love with the above song when I was advanced enough as a pianist to play the song. I still enjoy playing it, and I have even arranged it for string quartet for those audiences who might be familiar with the song.

I know, it is a little early to be thinking about Christmas and the future holidays. Still, fairly soon now the stores will be yanking Halloween goodies off the shelves and stocking them with Christmas and other holiday favorites. We keep our eyes open during the fall television season to see which one in our family will be the first to spot the first Christmas or holiday commercial. (Hint: look for the sparkly gold things and the lit candles, the large dining room tables laden with full platters of turkey, ham, and other roast feasts, and colorful stockings hung from a fireplace. Sometimes the first holiday commercial is subtle, which is why we look for the gold sparkly things first).

For teachers, however, this is the time to begin learning holiday songs. We have already begun working on holiday songs in my studio, so I thought I would share some of my studio’s favorite selections and the keys in which we play the songs.

About the time a student learns “Lightly Row” (Suzuki violin volume 1, song #2), the student is then ready to learn the first Christmas song. I teach “Jingle Bells” first because that is by far the most requested song in my studio. Every time I ask young students what their most favorite Christmas song is, the students answer with “Jingle Bells.” The song presents some challenges in terms of learning the rhythm and the notes to the verse, but the song’s popularity motivates students to practice and master the song.

Jingle Bells and Backup Fiddle

I teach the chorus to all my students. I have come up with a solution for the challenging verse section for my less advanced students. For the verse section, my more advanced students play the notes and my less advanced students play back-up fiddle with "kitty cat-cat" rhythm. If the student can play double open strings, then I teach the part as written in the above example, otherwise, I teach the student the top notes only, which are: E string, A string, E string, A string.

Verse Notes

I have to confess that I frequently resort to "shorthand" music writing when I teach these songs, because generally I am teaching students and parents who have not yet learned to read the music as I have written it out above. I know, it sounds hypocritical to do this when I often lament about how fiddle teachers go to such lengths to write out elaborate tablatures when it would just be simpler to learn to read the actual notes. Still, I have found that it is faster for my newer students to learn the songs with this shorthand. Their ability to read music later does not seem to suffer much. So here is my shorthand music version:
Shorthand Music Version

The long dashes are pauses in the music, and if you sing the chorus, you will understand why these pauses are listed. The underlined notes are played quickly.

There are simpler Christmas songs, but I find that my students are highly motivated to learn this particular song first. After the students learn this first song, I introduce some other easily learned songs, which I will discuss in a future post.

In my studio, we are already planning a Christmas performance at our local "trail of lights" show. The performance is very popular with my students, because the venue treats them to hot cocoa and hot dogs cooked on a stick over an open fire. I like to do performances at local nursing homes as well.

Do not underestimate the power of learning Christmas songs. Last year one studio mother worried that her son was focusing too much on Christmas songs rather than on technique and the Suzuki repertoire. I took the time to show her the spots in the Christmas songs that followed the patterns in the Suzuki repertoire. For example, Jingle Bells presents similarities with Lightly Row and has the same notes. Students still progress when we learn Christmas or other holiday songs. In fact, sometimes the students improve even more because of what they have learned in the Christmas and holiday songs. And let us not forget that one of the purposes of learning to play an instrument and make music is to share the fun and joy of it with others. Holiday seasons are great times for students to learn the lessons about giving back to others and sharing gifts. Why not use the instrument as a vehicle for learning these important life lessons, as Dr. Suzuki intended?

For now, this song is a good start to the holiday season, which will be upon us soon. Why not learn the same notes as the other songs we find in the early book one volume to the Suzuki violin books? Slap some reindeer ears on the cutest little one in the studio, place him or her in the center of the performance line up, and listen to the audience murmurs of delight as the students play their favorite holiday songs?

Here are some links to different versions of the Christmas Waltz. Enjoy!


  1. Paula, I haven't yet started Christmas tunes in September, but... I agree on several points! Last year three of my students played "I saw Three Ships" for an introduction to hooked bowing which they later used in the Happy Farmer. One of my students was at the level of being able to combine reading/ear to play almost all the pieces in Cello Time Christmas, and because he loves Christmas music his practice time increased way beyond what I would have asked of him. The book is also available for violin as "Fiddle Time Christmas" and they include CDs - helpful for those learning by ear and fun to play along with. I presume the violin book is similar... the cello book has a few things with a 2nd part on open strings for very beginners, and includes pieces appropriate for all levels of Suzuki book 1 - all first position. http://www.sheetmusicplus.com/title/Fiddle-Time-Christmas-with-CD/19468137?aff_id=443165

  2. Paula, we are working on O Come, Little Children and Silent Night for Christmas songs, but I am definitely going to add Jingle Bells for a fun one! I love the open strings which let even the beginners participate.

    And just as a follow-up to your Monday post, I have had a great week focusing on preparation. It went so well that I am going to keep focusing on preparation.

  3. Paula, My beginners love Evelyn Avsharian's Fun With Christmas --She starts with Jingle Bells , then Deck the Hall and Joy to the World seem to be easily learned.

  4. Yes, we love that book two. Over the years, I have had several of my students -- my christmas spirits, I call them -- suggest songs we had not done. Our list has grown. I have a huge folder now of just about everything related to Christmas. I may have to add the Christmas Waltz this year. We particularly love our rendition of the Ukranian "Carol of the Bells." We've written all sorts of parts that incorporate skills that the beginners can play.