Holiday Concert Programming: How to Make it Fun and Educational

with Bob Culbreth

Date Posted: May 04, 2016

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VandorenUSA: What are your goals when you are planning a holiday concert?

Bob Culbreth: I’ve been a middle school director for 25 years so I’ve experienced plenty of Holiday/Christmas concerts. I would always have three groups play (6th, 7th, 8th grade occasionally combining 7th and 8th grade if there were instrumentation issues). Ultimately, the goal is to educate the students, not only on performance components, but also on proper concert etiquette and a historical perspective of the various pieces and knowledge about their Countries of Origin.

6th Grade

For the 6th graders, this is their first year of band and their first concert, so I use the first half of their program to demonstrate how we learn the different components of music. We will demonstrate proper posture, breathing exercises and rhythmic counting. We will first count and clap the rhythms, then finger the notes and say the note names. Finally, we play the line of music. I’ll feature every section on a melody so that they can show off. It’s also a great photo opportunity for the relatives.

The second half of the program will be the Christmas/Holiday part of the program. Most of the current method books are constructed sequentially and most include Holiday/Christmas arrangements written for their level at this point in the year. They also include great supplemental material, aligned with meeting the national and most local music standards. Most method books also include cross-curricular material such as world maps, vocabulary and information about the Countries of Origin for the pieces.

7th/8th Grade

For the 7th and 8th grade, I do a mixture of things; one popular theme is “Music from Around the World.” I’ll do “ Oh Tannenbaum” from Germany, excerpts from The Nutcracker from Russia, “Greensleeves” and “In the Bleak Midwinter” from England and “Ukrainian Bell Carol” from Ukraine, to name a few. In addition, I have the kids introduce songs. I’ll pick some people to give a synopsis of the piece and the history of it, like “Jingle Bells” (if you really look at the words, it has nothing to do with Christmas—it’s really about a sleigh ride in New England).

For the concert in general, I have each program at 20 to 30 minutes in length for each group.


How do you suggest engaging the audience in your concerts?

BC: I’ll include a sing-a-long for the audience to participate in. Once you get them actively engaged they tend to have more fun.


What has made your holiday concerts so special?

BC: I’ve had Santa drop by and give out candy, let the students decorate a Christmas tree for a prop, and have all the students place white elephant gifts under the tree. It would be a post concert activity. 

I’ve bought some Poinsettia plants to dress up the stage and at the end of the program we would sell them. Our decorations were paid for and the profits go back to the band. A win-win.


Do you incorporate any auxiliary instruments such as hand bells or other percussion instruments?

BC: Sometimes I’ll include novelty pieces such as ‘Christmas in the Kitchen” and invite special guests such as the Principal to play pots and pans or conduct a piece. I think the administrators connect with the program better if they feel they are appreciated. 

It’s also a great time to place a feather in their cap in front of a lot of parents! I always acknowledged them and thanked them for their support. Of course every Holiday program must have sleigh bells. I’ve used a djembe and other exotic instruments as well.


It seems you really incorporate multi-cultural songs that appeal to each child and expand the “traditional” possibilities of a holiday music program.

BC: I think it’s very important to explain traditions of other cultures. I think most of us are more alike than different; music is one of our greatest tools to get that message across. I usually include the “Dreidel” song, have a student explain what the song is about and how it is used as a teaching tool, while being really fun when accompanied by the Dreidel game itself. I have also performed an arrangement called “Kwanzaa Celebration.”


Anything in particular you do for children who choose not participate because of religious beliefs?

BC: I used SmartMusic to develop separate material for the student. I would have them work on their material when that point of the rehearsal came about.


When do you start preparing for your holiday concert and how do you keep it fun leading up to the concert?

BC: I always do a Veteran’s Day concert or a fall concert, so, I wouldn’t start until right about now (mid-late November). Maybe I’ll have handed one or two pieces out but I don’t spend months and months learning the music. Probably three weeks before the concert, we would start focusing on just the holiday music.

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