Tips for playing Christmas music

It is that time of the year where we church musicians get have to play Christmas carols.

Yeah! Sigh….

I know it is not politically correct to admit it but I am not the biggest fan in the world of Christmas music. Don’t get me wrong—some traditional carols are great (“O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Angels We Have Heard On High,” “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger” for example). Some of the others aren’t so great. It is a bit of hit and miss when you flip through the Christmas section of the hymnal.

There! I said it. Take me out behind the barn and shoot me if you have to but it is the truth.

There is another thing about those Christmas carols that we musicians don’t like to admit. They are often hard to play. Guys, go ahead and admit it with me. Get it off your chest. They are not easy.

Have you ever wondered why it is that the Christmas section of the hymnal is so challenging? I am going to tell you and then give you a few tips to get you through the season unscathed.

Here are the main two reasons why you might struggle with traditional carols:

* They are very often not written in a major key. An awful lot of them are written in minor(ish) keys (various variations of what we would consider minor sounds).

* They are traditionally harmonized with chord changes on almost every beat.

A sampling of carols that include one or both of these characteristics include “What Child Is This,” “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” “We Three Kings,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”

You might wonder why so many Christmas carols have these characteristics and the answer is pretty simple: those songs are old. The Christmas section of the hymnal is where the old songs hang out. “Good Christian Men Rejoice” for example goes back possibly to the 13th Century. During those centuries, songs were written using minor(ish) keys more than the major key sound that is dominant today. Harmonizing every note was more in vogue back then too (A Mighty Fortress is our God is a notable example outside Christmas music from the same period that displays that characteristic.)

Whether all this is good or bad is not the point. Rather, the point is that the music just feels awkward because it is so different from the music a church musician plays the rest of the year. And it doesn’t work well with the “stride” style that most traditional pianists play in church.

When I refer to stride, I am describing the style where pianists play big chords in the right hand and “stride” up and down with the left hand alternating between open intervals (usually octaves) down low and chords up high.

Stride works great when the underlying chords are not changing that fast but if they are changing on every beat, it does not sound so great at all. So the first thing I would suggest you do is ditch stride in those situations. Just play low octaves on every beat (either the root or 3rd of the underlying chord). If you want, do some short left hand octave runs. In general, keep the left hand simple. If you play the octaves low, the music will still sound full.

If things are still sounding awkward, here is another easy thing to do: play less. Don’t try to catch all the chord changes. Just hit every other one. They are not all necessary in the first place and the congregation does not need to hear them. You can just play an open octave in the right hand with the melody notes. Keep the pedal down and it will sound full.

Honestly, one thing you might notice after a while is that you don’t have to play all the melody notes either. If you are struggling to play them at the right speed, just start leaving them out. For example, in “Joy to the World” (a deceptively difficult song), the congregation really doesn’t need to hear you pound out the repetitive notes in the phrase “and heaven and nature sing.” I promise you they know those notes just fine without your help. That is not an easy line to play on the piano at a energetic tempo so don’t try. I usually don’t; I just play a chord on every beat.

You could summarize all this with one simple concept: when you don’t know what to play, play less. Playing less is almost always a great idea anyway. Remember your main job as a traditional church pianist is to keep everyone in time. You don’t have to spoon feed them every chord and every melody note, especially on well-known Christmas carols.

Happy Christmas season. I hope these tips help make it a bit less stressful.