With Christmas in Mind…
For the average singer the run up to Christmas is usually a busy time of year. Many are called upon to take part in Christmas concerts and carol services. The added amount of singing all needs organisation and planning, which often takes place well out of sight and mind of all those actually singing.  It has always been a great custom in my Christmas celebrations to make an extra effort for these occasions as this can be one of a few times people get together to do things as a family. There is also something about singing that joins family and friends with fond memories. So here are some thoughts to make this year’s Christmas extra-special!

Planning a Carol Service
There are many things to remember when organising a carol service. It is always good to make sure that there are lots of people around in the background helping do some of the tasks on the day, but more so in the rehearsal and planning stages.

The Venue
This is normally a church but sometimes a school hall. This may seem a small point, but many choir directors forget this and end up with far too many people involved in the music and not enough space for the congregation or audience!

Knowing your venue is very important, and many services would benefit from knowing the acoustics. In my opinion a ‘dry’ acoustic leads to many sopranos dying from trying too hard on the descants and a ‘lively’ acoustic is not best suited for a brass band accompaniment!

The venue may also have an organ or piano, but make sure these are tuned and serviced before the final rehearsals. Also, the use of more than one performing space within the venue can make for a magical effect. Many arrangements of carols have two choirs, so try putting one to the side of the main area or even in a gallery.

The Service
This is normally thought of as a ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’ type of service, which will start with a traditional rendition of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, with the first verse sung by a solo treble. Then the first reading and second carol take place, and so on until all nine readings and carols are done. You can even find these nine readings in the back of Carols for Choirs.

However, this can be a long and quite restrictive layout. While it is a lovely way of telling the Nativity story, you can shorten it if you want. Often you have a carol that uses an image from the previous reading. If you think of this in the same terms as an opera, you aren’t moving the ‘plot’ along when employing this type of service. If you choose the text of the carols carefully you can keep the story moving all the time and not just in the readings.

If you are able to free up the service format a little you can often find a good balance between secular readings and carols and replace them with general Christmas songs and anecdotes; funny ones normally work better in these situations. Also, the use of popular Christmas songs such as ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ (which has almost been put into the same grouping as ‘Away in a Manger’ or ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ in many people’s minds) often makes for a festive feel.

Finding good readers is also a job that someone needs to do. Often this is thrust on a poor chorister to read at the last rehearsal, which is really very unfair. A chorister’s job is just that – so let them do the singing really well without the worry of doing a reading. Thinking further afield to include others who are friends of the choir or other students who aren’t involved in the singing is often a much better idea.

The Music
I have already given some ideas as where to start on choosing the music. However, this is only a start. You should make sure that you know how long the music takes so that the length is not excessive. (People are very busy at this time with shopping and other engagements so don’t punish them for coming by keeping them there for hours!)
Apart from looking at the text of the music you are considering, look also at the arrangements available. There are so many that a good music shop will often be able to help. Things to look out for are opportunities to ‘showcase’ the choir as best as possible. A solo verse is very easily made and can reward a hard worker, as will a smaller group; different groupings also result in a difference of texture, as will a descant.

A balance of choral and congregational carols is always a good idea. Many people love the robust singing that a traditional carol offers them, so make sure that you include them for the congregation. I would also choose these carefully, as many carols are high for non-singers, and this can be frustrating; a closer look at the keys can also lead to better performances. Carols in F major are often transposed down or up by a semitone as the upper harmonics in F major normally lead to unaccompanied singing falling flat. Likewise, sharper keys tend to stay in pitch better and also sound brighter. Thoughts for the pianist or organist and any other instrumentalists should also be high on the priority list, as a pianist will probably not thank you for having to play everything in G flat major!

The Rehearsals
These should be well planned and thought out. Having a list of how much music you need to cover in the time can often be a massive help. (I try to work out how long a difficult section might take and even plan down to the bar, not just a carol or movement!) Try not to keep all the descants to one rehearsal as the sopranos will not only become vocally tired but also the rest of the choir will be bored!

Vocal Heath
In the UK we don’t have the kindest of climates for singers at Christmas time. We are often fighting off colds and sore throats, but more care is needed if the singing is to be good. Many of my students ask me how to stay well in the event of illnesses going round. So here are my top tips for staying well vocally:

– Try to avoid those who you know to be ill in the first place. (I understand that many find this difficult as they fear being seen as a ‘diva’ but a simple explanation always softens the blow.)

– Stay hydrated. Drinking plenty of water is the most helpful thing as this will reduce the chances of getting infected, and it also enables the body to work more efficiently.

– Steaming or steam inhalations. These are a very good way of getting moisture to the vocal fold and also help kill off any germs.

– Take vitamins. Many find the change of temperatures a tiring effect of winter, and our immune systems are the first to be effected.

– If you are suffering from a cold or sore throat and need to sing try taking lemon juice in hot water followed by honey. This old-fashioned remedy is seen all around us today, but misunderstood in my view. The acidity of the lemon juice helps cut though any catarrh, which is where any infection may occur, and the honey puts back the moisture and coats the throat. (If you have to sing try not to do so immediately after honey as this makes it difficult for the vocal folds to work because they will be sticky!)

And finally…

– The word carol comes from the ancient Greek choros, meaning ‘dancing in a circle’, and from the Old French word carole, meaning ‘a song to accompany dancing’.

– It was St Francis of Assisi who introduced Christmas Carols to formal church services.

– Carols are traditionally sung from St Thomas’s Day (December 21) until Christmas Day.

– White Christmas by Irving Berlin from the musical White Christmas is the most popular Christmas song of all time and is estimated at selling 350 million copies of recording and sheet music.