HomeChristmas In July: Planning A Blockbuster Christmas Concert...

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...using the strategic equivalent of musical turkey and dressing.

So, I’m sitting on the beach.  It’s July 4th weekend.  What am I thinking about?  Christmas. 

Christmas music presents a conundrum to a group like DeltaCappella, which is composed of part-time singers.  We can meet only once each week, which gives us limited time to learn new songs.  Yet pulling off a full Christmas concert takes a repertoire entirely different from what we sing the other eleven months of the year.  It hardly makes sense to devote a huge amount of time to entirely new songs that can only be sung for one month out of the year.  Not only that, but it doesn’t sense to ignore our regular repertoire either, when we have so precious little time together to rehearse.

I’m going to argue that a Christmas concert is the most important one you’ll do all year and that you can put on a great Christmas concert that leave crowds with that warm, fuzzy Christmas feeling inside without having to spend half of your year learning the music.

A Christmas concert represents your best bet for introducing large numbers of people to contemporary a cappella.

Except for Scrooge, everyone loves Christmas music.  Young, old.  Rich, poor.  Christmas music even transcends religion…most Jews and Muslims in the western world love Christmas music.  And everyone loves Christmas music when sung in harmony.  I think it’s a subconscious throwback to the Norman Rockwell notion of caroling in a small town.

On top of this, people love hearing the same old Christmas songs redone in new and creative ways.  Think about all the versions of any given Christmas song that you hear played on the radio every year.  All styles of music, all sorts of artists.  Recordings, old and new.

If your contemporary a cappella group shows up at some event and starts singing Christmas carols with vocal percussion and strange syllables in the background, I guarantee you that people will stop and notice.  If you can do it for a full concert, you will win dozens of converts to contemporary a cappella music and garner a bunch more fans on your Facebook page.

Take advantage of this and learn Christmas music, even if you think you’ll only have one opportunity to sing a song before you put it away for the next year. 

Not only is Christmas music fun for those who get to listen, it’s also fun for the singers.  You’ll get no arguments from anyone in your group if you present them with music to a Christmas song right now, in July or August.  But if you wait until November and ask them to learn a whole concert’s worth of material, you’ll get plenty of complaints.

Here is the DeltaCappella strategy for building a Christmas repertoire to the point that we feel confident enough to book a major venue this year:  start small, add a few complicated and/or impressive songs each year, and fill in the rest of the space with easy songs that don’t take a lot of time to learn.  Each year, we pull out the older complicated songs and quickly bring them back to performance readiness, and then we need less “fluff” to fill in the rest of the show.

For the sake of the Christmas metaphor, I’m going to call the complicated songs “turkey” and the easy songs “dressing.”

We’ve learned just two “turkey” Christmas songs each year for each of the past three years, and we’ll learn just two more this year.  One year, our turkey was a close harmony version of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.  We spent six months on it, but we rock it now, and it blows the audience away.  This year’s turkey is a jazzed up gospel version of the Hallelujah Chorus.  We know that no one will have heard anything like it, and it will bring the house down.  Now in our fourth year, we will have eight turkeys to sing and that will be half of our concert.  There will still be half a concert of dressing, but I admit that our dressing tastes pretty good, and we’re going to put on a great show for our audience.

Three years ago, when DeltaCappella was brand new and had been together for fewer than six months, we set a goal of doing a major Christmas concert that would eventually become an annual Memphis tradition.  At that time, we started working on two turkeys several months in advance.  Then, in early December, we spent just one night learning three other Christmas songs, by improvising, as described below.  These were the dressing.  And we pulled of a small performance during our first Christmas as a group.

Each year since then, we’ve learned a few more turkeys each year and added some dressing as needed in order to perform a longer, flavorful Christmas set each year.

Here are the strategies we’ve employed to learn enough additional Christmas songs to do a full concert.  These are, as it were, the ingredients of our dressing.  You can use these strategies to fill out any concert, not just a Christmas concert.

  • Improvisation.  Everyone knows the basic harmonies of the standard Christmas carols, so they are ideal songs to put your own spin on without spending a lot of time arranging.  Choose a soloist, blow a pitch, and just start singing.  Everyone can start out on an “ooh” and then branch out from there.  If you hear something that sounds good, then point it out to the person who did it.  It’s an iterative process, and eventually, you have your own unique arrangement of a Christmas song.  DeltaCappella received a CARA nomination for “Little Drummer Boy,” an arrangement that grew out of this sort of organic process.  You can learn three songs in a single rehearsal by doing this.  At the end of the rehearsal, record yourselves, so you can listen and pick up where you left off at your next rehearsal.

  • The audience sing-a-long.  Choose a few well-known carols that everyone knows and learn a basic group arrangement from a hymnal.   Sing the first verse on stage, and then invite the audience to sing subsequent verses with you.  If you have an overhead projector, show the lyrics on screen.  As above, you can learn several songs in one rehearsal.

  • Featured performers.  There will always be someone who’s willing to do the extra work to pull together a complicated duet or trio.  Arrange a song that features a soloist, duet, or trio, but that has a very simple block setting of “oo” and “ah” for the rest of the singers.  The featured performers can work on the piece on their own time outside of group rehearsal, and not waste the precious little rehearsal time of the group.

  • Subsets of the larger group.  Have subsets of the larger group learn a piece to perform without the others.  If you divide a group of twelve singers into three quartets, you can learn three songs in the same time span that you learn one song otherwise.  Plus, on stage, it will give the singers who aren’t in the quartet a chance to rest their voices during the set.

  • Guest soloist or group.  This is the extreme filler.  Have someone else as an opening act.  Then you have to perform only half of a concert.  An opening act need not necessarily be a cappella.  If you do this, find at least one number that you can perform jointly.

The great thing about working hard to produce a really great Christmas concert is that you can do virtually the same show again next year, and the next year, and the next year.  Audiences don’t mind hearing the same songs year after year.  In fact, they want to hear the same songs year after year.  Once you’ve done it, you can pull together your Christmas show for the following year very easily, and the audience will keep coming back and growing.  I’m told that The Blenders rarely do any concerts, except for Christmas shows.  The group members do their own thing all year long, and then come together and do a bunch of sold-out Christmas shows in their region.

So, after a couple of years of building up to a blockbuster Christmas show, you’ll find yourself with lots of free time as you prepare for your Christmas concert in subsequent years.  Spend that time recording all your turkeys, and you’ll have a Christmas CD to sell at your concert.  What makes a great Christmas CD?  That’s another blog entry altogether.

-Jay A. Mednikow

About the author:
Jay Mednikow runs his family’s 100-year-old jewelry business in Memphis.  He sang with the Harvard Din & Tonics while in college and with the Duke Pitchforks while in business school.  Then he took a 17-year break from a cappella, because in 1990, there were very few avenues available to continue singing a cappella music after school.  But in 2007, Jay’s desire to do it again led him to found DeltaCappella, a twelve-man contemporary a cappella group that was a charter member of the Contemporary A Cappella League (CAL).  He has become an avid proponent of post-collegiate a cappella music.  Jay’s wife and three children, thankfully, support him in his musical endeavors.