Tidings of Comfort and Joy: 10 Ways to Tune Up the Holidays

Sargent Major Mercy Diez sings Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” for a United States Army Christmas concert. (Photo by United States Army Band)

The debate continues. The tension increases. Individuals and societies pit themselves against each other over THE question, yes, that question: when is it too early to start listening to Christmas music?

Whether you crank up tinsel-tunes before Thanksgiving, after Thanksgiving, or sometime in July, one truth remains: music brings meaning to the holidays. Unlike any other holiday throughout the year, there is more music associated with the Christmas than any other holiday–even Easter. Not only that, but every nation around the world that celebrates Christmas does so with song.

So what could be more appropriate than to celebrate the holidays by pumping them full of melody? Here they are:

TEN WAYS TO SPICE UP THE SEASON WITH QUALITY TUNES

  1. Give the gift of music. First things first. You know you’re sweating over your Christmas shopping list. But here’s a little secret: everyone loves music. Easy peasy. Wrap up your favorite CD, give an iTunes gift card, or tie a bow on the violin your child’s been bugging Santa about for years. Don’t forget the frosting on the fruitcake: sheet music and accessories!
  2. Go caroling. Bundle up and don’t even worry about bringing music along if you don’t want to. Sing the standards you know: “Jingle Bells,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Let It Snow,” “O, Christmas Tree,” and all your other favorites. Gather a group of friends and family to carol around the block or drive around the neighborhood to loved ones’ homes. Organize a group of musicians to play or sing carols at a nursing home. You’re sure to brighten someone’s day.
  3. Organize a holiday recital. During the holidays, people are looking for excuses to get together. If you’re a private teacher, schedule a holiday recital for your students to play for their parents, friends, and other family. If you’re a solo performer or play in a quartet, organize a performance with some traditional tunes. Don’t forget to pull out the cookies and hot chocolate after the show!
  4. Host a singalong. It’s especially fun if you have a piano. Make copies of Christmas songs and put them in binders. Invite a pianist to accompany and ask guests to bring a holiday treat to share: think peppermint bark, caramel corn, and gingerbread men. Now there’s something to sing about.
  5. Light the Menorah. Learn and sing the three Chanukah blessings when lighting the menorah: l’hadlik neir, she-asah nisim, and she-hekhianu. And don’t forget to sing “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel,” when you pull out the top.
  6. Hire a quartet. There’s nothing classier than a live quartet or small ensemble providing beautiful background (or foreground) noise at a holiday party. If you’ve never arranged for live performers at a gathering, ask around to find a good group of experienced players. Appreciative guests will be telling you all evening how much they love the entertainment.
  7. Attend a concert. Holiday concerts are never few and far between. And school orchestra and choir concerts are only the beginning. Look through the paper or online to find out where and when you can attend. For some extra interactive fun, find a local “Messiah Sing-Along” to attend and rock out with Handel’s famous oratorio. Don’t forget to warm up those vocal chords before you go!
  8. See The Nutcracker. What could be more classic? Enjoy taking part in a historical tradition by attending this popular ballet. Tchaikovsky’s famous, heart-warming melodies will definitely leave you feeling the spirit of Christmas.
  9. Send a musical card. Come on, birthdays aren’t the only occasions worthy of the stationery sound chips. Distant family and friends will especially enjoy finding  a tune in the mailbox to fill them with Christmas cheer.
  10. Watch cartoons. Christmas brings out the kid in everyone, and there’s no better time to tune into classic holiday specials like A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Sing along with classic toon tunes like, “Christmastime is Here,” and “You’re a Mean One, Mister Grinch.”

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It’s time to celebrate, and what better way to do it than with music? After all, that’s our specialty. Happy Holidays!

Sincerely,

The Kennedy Violins Team

Music Theory Basics (Part 2)

In Music Theory Basics (Part 1), we discussed the musical staff, clefs, and note names.  Today, we will cover the basics of rhythm and note duration.  There are lots of charts in this one!

The term rhythm has come to mean several different things in today’s culture, but for our purposes, we will use the following definition:

Rhythm: The controlled movement of music in time usually divided into strong (or accented) and weak (or unaccented) beats in a piece of music.

  • Beats: The regular pulse of music.  Often, beats are dictated by accents in music, a metronome, or a conductor.
  • Strong (or accented) beat: The effect that occurs in music when one note or syllable is stressed or emphasized more than others.

Duration: The length of time that a note is sounded. This length of time is determined by the note value.

  • Note value: is the duration of a note in the context of a measure/bar of music as determined by the time signature.  Here are some common note values.

Common note values chart from Music Theory Basics (Part 2) on blog.kenneedyviolins.com.

To avoid confusion with note names, it is important to think about them in relationship to a whole note.  A half note is half the value of a whole note, a quarter note is one-fourth (or a quarter) of a whole note, and an eighth note is one-eighth the value of a whole note.  Here is another chart to break it down.

Note Values Chart #2 from Music Theory Basics (Part 2) on blog.kennedyviolins.com

  • Measure/Bar: a term that signifies the smallest division of a piece of music marked by vertical bar lines on the staff.  Each measure contains a fixed number of beats.  The number of beats is determined by the time signature.

Picture of Measure and Bar Lines from Music Theory (Part 2) on blog.kennedyviolins.com.

  • Time Signature: A symbol placed at the left side of the staff indicating the meter (or measure of time) of the piece of music.  A time signature is made up of two numbers.  The top number tells you how many beats are in each measure and the bottom number tells you which note is the beat.

The top number is pretty straightforward. It always signifies how many beats are in a a measure.  If it’s a 4 then there are four beats, if it’s a 6 then there are six beats, and so on.

To “crack the code” of the bottom number, you need to be familiar with factions.  The bottom number is the denominator of the fraction of the note that it represents.  For instance, a quarter note is one-fourth or 1/4 the value of a whole note. So, if the bottom of a time signature is a 4 then the quarter note gets the beat.  Likewise, an eighth note is one-eighth or 1/8 the value of a quarter note.  So, if the bottom of the time signature is an 8 then the eighth note gets the beat.

Here is a chart of common time signatures you will run into.

We will stop there for now.  You can now take the concepts we have learned in these first two parts and apply them too some of the basic songs in the repertoire!  Why not try this part of “Jingle Bells.”

 

Classical Music Genres of the Common Practice Period

Classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Playing music is more than just playing notes on a page. Simply playing the notes would be like saying words without expression, asking questions without the rising inflection at the end of the phrase, writing without punctuation, eating food without salt or spices, seeing the world without color . . . you get it. Creating beautiful music happens when you add flavorful touches and techniques:

  • vibrato
  • dynamics
  • articulation
  • style

That last one is hard to define for students and sometimes hard to teach. But when you understand the following classical music genres, you’ll know how to better shape a piece to represent the period in which it was written.

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THE COMMON PRACTICE PERIOD

The phrase “classical music” usually refers to any music played by an orchestra or ensembles including stringed instruments, piano, or vocals that feel . . . old. Music written by dead people who wore powdered wigs. Music directed by some guy in coat tails holding a stick.

Much of the classical music you hear today on classical music radio, Pandora stations, and Spotify playlists comes from the Common Practice Period. The term “Common Practice Period” refers to the three centuries between roughly 1600 and 1910 when the techniques, ideas, and written language of Western European music as we know it today were standardized and systemized.

THE THREE CLASSICAL GENRES OF THE COMMON PRACTICE PERIOD

You’ve probably also heard the terms “Romantic” and “Baroque” and “Classical” as sub-genres of general classical music. Well, that’s confusing. How can there be a classical music sub-genre of classical music?

Understanding the genres of classical music becomes increasingly important as beginning students advance into more mature performers. To bring some light to the subject, let’s break it down. From “oldest to youngest,” here are the three subsets of classical music.

1. BAROQUE (1600-1750)

  • Definitive Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach
  • Other Baroque Composers: Antonio Vivaldi, Arcangelo Corelli, George Frederic Handel, Henry Purcell
  • Defining Characteristics: Continuous bass line (basso continuo), use of harpsichord and pipe organ, introduction of written works such as cantatas and oratorios, smaller ensembles with limited or no wind and percussion parts
  • Performance Style: added embellishments and tremelos, little or no vibrato, trills starting on the higher note

2. CLASSICAL (1750-1820)

  • Definitive Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Other Classical Composers: Christoph Willibald Gluck, Carl Philipp Emanuel (C.P.E.) Bach, Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethover (early works)
  • Defining Characteristics: short melodies and phrases, obvious cadences, larger orchestra than Baroque, music in sonata form, eventual disuse of harpsichord and introduction of piano, quartet music
  • Performance Style: light and clear articulation, trills starting on the lower not, modest use of vibrato, more dynamic contrast

3. ROMANTIC (1820-1910)

  • Definitive Composers: Ludwig Van Beethoven (transitional later works), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Johannes Brahms
  • Other Romantic Composers: Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, Frederic Chopin, Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner, Antonin Dvorak, Edward Elgar, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Sergei Rachmaninoff
  • Defining Characteristics: reflective of human emotion and expression; a response to social and political movements; rich and song-like melodies; more modulation and key changes; larger orchestra with more winds, brass, and percussion; programme music and symphonic poems;
  • Performance Style:  dramatic, expressive, wide vibrato, dramatic and high-contrast articulation and dynamics, rich texture, virtuosic playing, lyrical and song-like phrasing

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Next time you pull out your sheet music, take a look at the composer’s name and their birth and death dates (usually included after the name). Identify the musical period from which your piece was performed, then try adding the stylistic characteristics relevant to that genre of music. Perhaps you’ll find yourself developing a greater appreciation and understanding of the historical value of music as well as the brilliance of these amazing composers. Enjoy taking your performance to a whole new level of musical maturity!

Music Theory Basics (Part 1)

Music is a language and like any other language it has a written form.  The parts that make up the written form of music and the rules for writing is are know as music theory.  No matter your age or experience level, reading music and understanding music theory is a valuable skill.  Not yet music literate?  Now is the perfect time to learn!

Let’s dive in!

Staff:  The musical staff is the foundation of modern musical notation.  The staff is made up of five lines and four spaces.  Each line and space represents a specific note.

  • Note: Short for “notation”. Depicts the pitch and duration of a musical sound.
  • Pitch: represents the perceived fundamental frequency of a sound.

Clef:  A clef is what assigns individual notes to certain lines or spaces.  There are several type of clefs, but the most common are the Treble clef (aka G clef) and the Bass clef (aka F clef).

  • Treble clef:  Treble is a term for higher sounding notes.  The treble clef gets its name because it represents the high notes.
  • Bass clef:  Bass is a term for lower sounding notes.  The bass clef gets its name because it represents the low notes.

Note names:  In modern music, there are 7 letters that make up the musical alphabet.  A, B, C, D, E, F, and G.  The letters are used to denote the pitch of each note.  The note names are assigned in alphabetical order (i.e. B comes before C, etc.) and once you reach a G the alphabet starts over again (i.e. A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C…).  This patten can repeat an infinite number of times.

Let’s put this all together with this handy chart!

Since this handy chart won’t always be available, let’s go over how to remember note names.  The best way, that I have found, is to use mnemonic devices.

On the treble clef, the notes in the spaces (from bottom to top) spell FACE.  The note names spell a word, so that’s easy enough to remember.  The notes on the lines (from bottom to top) are E, G, B, D,  and F.  To remember these note names, most people make up a sentence like: Every Good Boy Does Fine.

On the bass clef, the notes in the spaces (from bottom to top) are A, C, E, and G.  The sentence All Cows Eat Grass is a handy way to remember that.  The notes on the lines (from bottom to top) are G, B, D, F, and A.  I like to use the sentence Green Bananas Don’t Fool Anybody.

If this seems complicated to you, throw away the sentences and just remember two things.  The treble clef is also called a G clef because it indicates where the G is located on the staff.  If you look closely, the line that intersects the clef the most is the second line from the bottom.  That line is G.   Likewise, on the bass clef is also called an F clef because is indicated where the F is located.  The F can be found between the two dots that are to the side of the clef.  This is the second line from the top.  Music scholars  believe that the current style of the clefs evolved from stylized G’s and F’s that composers and publishers included in the music.

In Music Theory Basics (Part 2) we will cover Rhythm and Note Duration.  Inspired and can’t wait?  8notes.com has a useful Beginner Music Theory section with easy to read slide shows.  You can also find music theory in some of the most popular violin method books like Suzuki.  For more recommended method books, click here.