Music direction during the holidays

Christmas is a time for music, and music directors’ calendars typically fill up in December.  In academic circles, there are Christmas pageants, holiday musicals, end-of-term recitals, and Christmas music concerts.  On the professional scene, performers take advantage of both the celebratory and melancholy sides of the season to present concerts, charity events, and special performances (full-length and one-off both).  Shows that are running on and Off-Broadway and in regional and community theaters tack on additional performances, and theaters and producers mount shows geared especially for children and family audiences.  All over the country there are productions of familiar titles such as A Christmas Carol, A Christmas Story, and How The Grinch Stole Christmas, as well as an endless supply of new, original holiday works for the musical stage.

Regardless of the type of event or the job situation, but especially at this time of year, Joseph Church’s Music Direction for the Stage: A View from the Podium provides invaluable tips and insights into how to organize and lead a musical production as conductor, pianist, arranger, vocal coach, and in many other musical capacities, in many different musical and professional environments, all offered from the perspective of a seasoned professional.  The book is available for pre-order at the URLs listed below.

Here are five things for music directors working during the holidays to keep in mind:

1) Keep your work positive and inclusive.

To some extent it’s up to you as the music director to set the tone for every project you work on.  This is especially important during the holidays, when much of the entertainment has its primary purpose something uplifting, convivial, or spiritual.  Positive sentiment begins organically: if you instill it in your performers and commit to it as a leader and player, it will be palpable to an audience, and appreciated by your colleagues.  Furthermore, during the season, people who might not normally participate in or attend stage events should find their holiday theatergoing or singing/acting experience to be memorable (in a good way!) and special.

2) Focus on the beauty and emotionalism of the music.

Don’t worry that your lead trumpet plays a quarter tone sharp, or your leading soprano sings a quarter tone flat.  Or at least, don’t worry unduly.  These sorts of imperfections seem more commonplace this time of year; if that is indeed true, it is likely due to musicians being busier and less available, productions being thrown together hurriedly, and the aforementioned appearance of part-timers or amateurs on the scene.  Keep in mind the advice from the previous paragraph, and lead according the needs of the situation, keeping the proceedings in rehearsal and performance positive and enjoyable.  Put the heartwarming music, rather than any shortcomings of the performance, at the fore of your attention.

3) Be sensitive.

Times are tough for many at the holidays.  Loneliness, loss, poverty, and painful memories are amplified.  Often it is music or drama that triggers them.  Music and drama can also be a balm for suffering.  Understand the important role that the music you direct takes in people’s lives, and treat your work with the same sensitivity you would treat the people themselves.  This can apply both to people working with you on your production and those in the audience.  Don’t be surprised if a raw nerve or an open wound is touched, and be supportive.  Again, keep your focus on the music–that is why everyone is there, whether or not they are working through personal feeling.  Professionalism sometimes entails being particularly compassionate, while of course maintaining a professional demeanor.  The holidays are not the best time to show off how politically incorrect you can be, much as you might embrace political incorrectness.  This also holds true with regard to my next suggestion, which involves…

4) Religion

As someone wisely once said, while watching Fiddler on the Roof, everyone is Jewish.  The same holds true at Christmastime, when people of all creeds and beliefs come together to sing carols about the birth of Jesus and red-nosed reindeer and all the other things that are universally sung about (many with entirely commercial origins).  As a music director, you must adopt the spiritual conviction of the music or drama you are leading and performing, and preferably understand the meaning being conveyed.  I remember being chastised by a professor in my choral conducting Master’s program for not being a true believer.  I replied, and I still contend, that all music directors are to some extent actors, and even an atheist humanist like me can take on the necessary faith when performing a work written out of devotion.  But music directors should also be the wisest musicians in the room. Before singing “I Have a Little Dreidl,” they should research the reason that the dreidl should be made of lead, not clay.  And who was this King Wenceslas, anyway, and what is the feast of Stephen?  It’s the music director’s job to find out.

5) Holiday music comes in many styles

One day you’ll have to jingle bell rock, the next you’ll be tackling the gentle chromaticism of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” or the the classical fanfare of “Adeste Fideles,” and the next pull off the pop rhumba of “Feliz Navidad.”  So be ready.  As always, a good music director must be something of a stylistic chameleon, and train his or her expertise in multiple (if not all) genres.  At no time of year is this more clear than at the holidays.


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