The Christmas Concert season is upon us, and it’s show time! Harried teachers labour over steaming photocopiers, fret over the struggle to fit massed players on to too-small platforms, wake before dawn to make last-minute adjustments to arrangements, and stay until well into the small hours to pack away the inordinate amount of equipment required. It’s an exhausting but exhilarating time of the year, and putting on concerts with groups of young children is a very particular art.
So why do it? For the parents, naturally. We want them to see the fruits of their children’s work, our work and their own work at home. We want them to revel, with us, in the sheer joy of playing. If they choose to watch the entire thing through the lens of a camcorder, good luck to them. Fingers crossed that no one suffers a wardrobe malfunction, or does something unspeakable in the nasal area. A colleague of mine once ran a concert during which one child bit another on the bum. That took some smoothing over.
These concerts are also for our colleagues, and the musical and wider communities of which we are part. By presenting our work, we can gain respect, and even garner precious resources. There is a fine line here between preparing something very carefully, and overrehearsing it to the point where all the music is gone from it, and all thought too.
But of course the people the concerts are really for are the children, to celebrate their achievement and give them a taste of what this live art of ours is all about. And that means presenting work of quality, with confidence and enthusiasm, in an environment as uncluttered by distractions as possible.
There is no joy whatsoever in the sight (or sound) of children anxiously scraping through something they can barely manage. Likewise, there is little to gladden the heart in the sight of a stressed adult, running about the stage, flapping pieces of paper and shifting chairs. Or that of children shuffling nervously about the stage to the accompaniment of whispered prompting. And picking their noses. There, I’ve said it.
So that’s the challenge: design a concert that puts the children and the music at the heart of the event.
First thing to go for me is the music stands. Parents want to see their children and children want to see their parents. Therefore all performances in these early stages are from memory. Scary the first time you try it, maybe, but build it into the expectation and it becomes perfectly normal. Performances are more natural, communicate well, and, because they have been internalised, come from the whole musician. Children are set up well for later life, and there are twenty-odd fewer pieces of furniture to trip over.
And what about that static teacher–leader–conductor at the front of the group? Quite apart from the hideous vision of a looming backside featuring in all those treasured home videos, it’s another block between the children, who are still after all very small, and their audience. Is it cheating for teachers to play alongside their young pupils? I don’t think so. It is good for children to see that their teachers are also taking part in the celebration and are willing to put their own skills on the line too. Accompanying, reinforcing, providing alternative lines to flesh out the sound – it’s all good.
What to do in between pieces, how to walk on, how to take a bow – these also need preparation. Children need to feel the performance space and be aware of everything they do in it, in order to be truly comfortable and give of their best. They need to wear something that makes them feel special, but not so special they are afraid to move. Or breathe.
Children also need to feel the warmth of the audience, not be tied up too much in traditional etiquette. There is plenty of time in later life for interpreting the nuance, or dealing with the disappointment, of a polite ripple of applause. Personally I try to break down the fourth wall at the beginning of the concert by rehearsing the audience, actively encouraging whoops of approval and cries of ‘Bravo’ and ‘Encore’.
And now for that rousing festive number. Something upbeat and tinselled, with a strong base note of mince pies and roasting chestnuts. Above all, this concert is about joy. Happy holidays!