The Christmas Nightmare in the Nursery School by Angela Tilly

BKA Newsletter, Winter 2003

This is often a ‘thorny’ subject between vocal specialists and teachers with no musical skills. How many of us have had to put our children through the traditional musical nightmare because of parent pressure and listened with clenched teeth to the appreciative comments of those who don’t know any better when we know how well children can perform when given the chance? And how many of us whose teeny songsters have reached fantastic vocal heights during lessons, have been sabotaged at the eleventh hour by well-meaning but ill-advised colleagues at the Christmas concert?

Having spent a weekly session for a term at a Montessori Nursery school carefully building up vocal and musical concepts within a strict pitch range and achieving enchanting singing by 24 tots between the ages of 2½ and 4½ years, imagine my horror when I found that two days before the Christmas concert, the teachers had “tampered” with the pitch – their reason being that they could not sing “that high!” Not being able to rehearse with the pianist beforehand, I had written out the songs for her – all of them simple and with a small range for very young voices. She and I had conversed on the telephone and agreed on a recommended pitch and one line introduction for each song to avoid the need for “Start now” and other disturbing utterances. She informed me ten minutes before the show that she had been asked to put the pitch down as it was too high for the teachers to sing. My objection was that at a major third lower it was then too low for the children to sing. However, she “could not go against the Director” so it would have to stay! (My reply is not repeated here!).

However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the children responded beautifully by bawling their heads off in a raucous rendering of “Bye, bye, baby.” There was no tune whatsoever and the volume was deafening. I decided action was needed and resorted to “Start now!” and other suitable cues at the original pitch for the rest of the performance. The pianist gave up, the piano was silenced and the result was magical. The children sang like angels. Hankies were in abundance with not a dry eye in the audience. A musical disaster was averted and all agreed afterwards that the children cannot cope with a pitch too low or too high and will shout so that they can hear their voices. At a pitch frequency between D and B in the octave below above middle C, most of them can hear and control their voices very well. There is no need to shout. (Shouting belongs to the speaking range). There are few things that sound more beautiful than very little children singing sensitively and in tune, enjoying the experience and knowing that they are performing well.

Another problem that rears its ugly head during the autumn term is that of the type of Christmas entertainment for parents. Most little ones cannot cope with the stage, curtains, numerous scene changes and endless text that they do not understand. From about half term onwards the teachers go into creative Christmas mode, the parents start making costumes and gathering family forces for the big performance, the children switch off completely. After that, panic sets in and all else is forgotten in the nightmare of organising extra rehearsals, last minute music lessons, stage-fright and appeasing stroppy children who ‘do not want to do it.’

Many teachers have asked me, “Is it necessary to put ourselves through all this every year? My answer is a resounding, “No!” I offer the following solution. Careful planning on the part of the organisers is essential to avoid over-rehearsing and starting the Christmas play too early. When it comes to the big day, the end product should be just that – a product made from the material of the curriculum. One week should be sufficient to ‘glue’ it all together. If a Nativity is required, it should be a very simple ‘one-liner’, preferably put together by the children. The rest can be done in song, incidental music and dance.

During the autumn term I teach a variety of songs and musical concepts that can be learned easily. They are based on topical subjects, such as the seasons, animals, special events, but some can be re-cycled at a later date, sometimes with different words appropriate for Christmas. Many children do not realise at first that some of the songs have the same music. There is nothing wrong in that – it is a bonus for those that do. A song that can be mastered quickly often becomes ‘new’ with different actions or movement. Previously learned skills such as walking on the beat, the spiral walk, thread the needle, follow the leader can be repeated with a completely new song. Thus concepts and music are being cross-matched constantly and the children’s skills being exercised throughout without any risk of boredom. Their delight knows no bounds when a new song is learned for Christmas and they find that they can already do the activity required.

I use the piano as enhancement, but only if I have the services of a good pianist. It can be an instrument of beauty that the children like to listen to, but I do not allow it to prop up or hide the singing. If you would like samples of tried and tested favourites and ‘tricks’ that can be used a short cut to the Christmas entertainment, I can supply some on request.

Good teachers will find many more songs and ideas and use them wisely. Please note that sort cuts to music education are not allowed. In the words of Ildikó Herboly: “Things not learned properly in the early stages take their revenge on a musician later.”