047 – Holiday Activities for Your December Group Classes

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Episode Summary

Ten holiday-themed activities to use during your December group classes.


Items Mentioned

(1) Solo Performances (add instruments to make it an ensemble)

(3) Piano Ensembles
(8) Thank You Cards to Parents for the Gift of Music
  1. Christmas Piano Ensemble from Hal Leonard’s books

  2. 12 Days of Christmas video project 2021

  3. Christmas rhythm cups


The month of December is often the busiest of the year for many but especially for us as teachers and musicians. You may not only be planning a recital for your students, but you likely have extra programs and services you’re playing for throughout the month.

Considering the business of the season, I’ve seen many studio teachers over the years recognize the value in holding group classes – whether that’s for the entire month of December, the week or two leading up to Christmas, or even just as a one-off studio Christmas party.

Holidays are always a good time to hold group classes of some kind, not only because they compress the workload but also because it can be fun to use the holiday themes to tailor your class or event.

Today I’m going to answer a question I’ve seen posted often in teacher groups this time of year: what kinds of activities can I can during my December group classes? Having held classes myself every December over the past 12 years, I compiled 10 tried and true activities that have been go-to winners year after year.

Welcome to the Piano Pantry Podcast where together we live life as independent music teachers. I’m your host, Amy Chaplin. In this space we talk about all things teacher-life related from organizing our studios to getting dinner on the table and all that comes between. You’ll get loads of easily-actionable tips on organizing and managing your studio while balancing life and home.

As I stated in the intro, the ideas I’m sharing with you today are all ones that I’ve done in my studio – some for multiple years – and have found to be fun, useful, and dependable. I haven’t necessarily done every item every year, but they’ve all been successful enough that I’m confident sharing them with you today.

I’m going to start off with the most obvious one that is not necessarily holiday-themed, and that’s having students perform for each other. Perhaps even more so than other times throughout the year, kids always come in excited to perform their favorite Christmas Carol. If students are comfortable with it, you could even do something like, after they perform it once, turn it into a little rhythm ensemble assigning other students instruments to play along. A simple way to execute this would be something like having one student play a light drum pulse to the big macrobeat – say one beat per measure, one student play a shaker or jingle bell to the little beat – say the pulse – and one student play a triangle on beats 2 and 4.

If you’re not comfortable doing this free-style, or you like the idea, and what to do more, this leads me to the second item, a resource from Susan Paradis. She has an arrangement of Jingle Bells that has written out parts for four different rhythm instruments, an easy piano arrangement, and a bass line. This would be something that could work for multi-levels if you had a student that could easily sight-read the piano arrangement, then more beginner students could do the ensemble part.

Speaking of ensembles, this takes us into the third item – piano ensembles. If you’re lucky enough to have multiple keyboards, piano ensembles can be a lot of fun. My preference has always been to use it as a sight-reading activity, so the ensemble arrangements I choose are always easier than playing level so they can learn them quickly in the class without having to organize them practicing parts prior to class. My go-to resource for equal-level arrangements has been Hal Leonard’s Christmas Piano Ensemble book series. You can also get them online from Piano with Lauren or, if you are looking for multi-level arrangements, from Dorla A-pah-ri-si-o’s Piano Pyramids.

Don’t have multiple piano’s? No worries! You can easily organize your own little duets or trios at one piano using a lead sheet. Have one student plays the melody in the upper part of the piano, a second student can play the chord harmony in the middle of the piano using either root or close position chords, and a third student could play the chord roots in the bass. My Christmas By Ear book would be a great tool to help you with this as it includes both chord charts and leadsheets for eight Christmas tunes, including Jingle Bells, Silent Night, and Up On the Housetop.

The fourth idea for you today is to do harmonic audiation work for Christmas Tunes. This is another fun way for your students to feel like an ensemble when you don’t have multiple pianos and is something that the Christmas By Ear resource I just mentioned would be helpful with. The idea is that you gather in a circle and sing the harmonic root movement alongside the melody. This works especially well with Christmas tunes that don’t have a lot of harmonic changes and use just the tonic and dominant chords like “I Saw Three Ships” or just the I-IV-V, like “Silent Night.” For example, for “I Saw Three Ships,” you would sing I – V – I (quick V-I) at the end. If this is something you don’t do regularly with students, you will probably have the best success with a little order students or a mix of ages that can support each other. You would sing the melody while using your fingers to signal to them the harmonic movement they sing. If you would like to see this in action, click on the link in the show notes for this item which will take you to a video of me doing this to the tune of Jingle Bells with my students. You might also jump back and listen in on episode #46 where I talk about teaching Jingle Bells By Ear.

If you’ve been around the piano teaching world for awhile, you likely already know about this **next idea—**Wendy Stevens Holiday Rhythm Cups. I’ve linked to a video of my students doing one of these years ago. They’re a lot of fun and a good rhythm challenge. If you don’t know what this is, students sit in a circle and use cups – like plastic Red solo Cups reading a rhythm sheet that has a variety of movements like tapping, the top of the cup, passing it to the next student, and so forth, the included accompaniment helps spice it up.

The sixth idea I would like to share is a relatively recent product that was the result of all of our Covid days online, and that’s Joy Morin’s 12 Days of Christmas Video Project. This studio-wide project is a fun way to pull everyone together. Whether you do lessons online or in person, you could make this project part of one of your group classes. The premise is that each student gets one segment of the tune, like – three french hens – or – or two turtle doves – and then you splice the segments together to make one video of the tune. It does take a little bit of video editing effort on your part, but Joy walks you through the process really clearly. It’s a really clever and unique project that you could do with your whole studio or even just a segment. You could either assign parts ahead of time and record during group class or have them both practice and record during group class. It really depends on the level of your students.

The seventh activity I have for you today is a listening map of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus from MakingMusicFun.net. A listening map is just that – a visual guide to help you follow along with the form of the song. It’s a printout that uses imagery to show the peaks and repetitions and will guide and promote active listening. Be sure and listen to it yourself first to make sure you can help students follow along. Not only is it fun to experience the form of the piece in this way, but use it as an opportunity to introduce this popular Christmas song that some students may not be familiar with – or at least beyond just the “Hallelujah.” A quick Google search can help you gather information on the history behind the song, why the tradition is to stand when you hear it, and the context and setting of the piece within the larger choral work.

Next up and number eight on the list is to gather up some blank paper, crayons, markers, and as many decorating craft items as I want and have your students write a thank you note to their parents for giving them the gift of music! I got this idea several years ago from an old blog post on Music Teachers Helpers, which is no longer available so it’s not linked in the show notes. As a side note, Music Teachers Helper was the original studio management software that was recently bought out and is now Duet Partner, anyways, so this isn’t necessarily a musical activity but it still ties in with the idea of gift-giving in thanking parents for the gift of music. Still, you could pair the decorating time with ninth item on my list…

Exposure to some really cool and inspiring Christmas-themed music videos. I have a series of around 25 really fun videos I’ve saved over the years that, while originally developed as an off-bench music lab time for students, also serves as a great resource for things like this as well. You could play a handful of these videos while students decorate their cards. You’ll find videos like Jarrod Radnich’s virtuosic version of “I Saw Three Ships,” Cameron Carpenter’s virtuosic organ solo of Sleigh Ride, and “Dance of the Sugar Ply Fairy” played on a Glass Harp. There’s even an accompanying listening guide available for purchase you can use to guide some active listening as a group.

The final and 10th item I wanted to mention today is expressive movement activities. Expressive movement uses movement to highlight both the form and the expressive quality of the music. I first discovered this when using John Feierabend’s Move It! DVD Series. Along those same lines, there’s an old blog post from Heidi’s Piano Notes where she put together expressive movements to “Trepak” from the Nutcracker. The movements take a liking to motions in baseball and have been a real hit with my younger students this time of year. You could certainly even take this as inspiration for creating your own expressive movements to any Christmas tune to your liking.

I love this list because it includes such a great variety of different kinds of activities. Pick the ones that speak to you and your studio the most and maybe even one that makes you a little uncomfortable and will challenge you and your students a bit! Perhaps something like the 12 Days of Christmas video project or the harmonic audiation activities.

Whatever you choose, I hope you and your students have a delightful and music-filled time together this holiday season.

Don’t forget, all the items I’ve mentioned today have been listed in the show notes including any relevant links. I’ve also included links to three videos of my own students doing things on this list. You can find a video of my students performing a rhythm cups arrangement to We Wish You a Merry Christmas, my studio’s 12 Days of Christmas video from 2021, and a brief session of me doing vocal harmonic audiation work to Jingle Bells with some of my older students.

Look me up online so we can keep in touch. You can find me on Instagram at amychaplinpiano or on Facebook at Piano Pantry.

The fun fact I’ll leave you with today is that I love reading psychological thrillers and watching crime shows like Unsolved Mysteries or Cold Case. No Hallmark for me – I like being kept on my toes and in suspense! Much more exciting!