So, Where Did Christmas Music Come From, Anyway?

play Christmas music on the piano

My wife, Erin, and I recently discussed our favorite Christmas music.

Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Nat King Cole are among the top singers we listen to each Christmas.

After listening to Sinatra sing several amazing Christmas arrangements, my wife asked a serious question to which she knew I could answer.

(I AM the music professional, of course.)

“How did Christmas music originate?”

“Ummm… Let me get back to you on that one,” I said.

I didn’t know the answer.


What about you? Have you ever wondered how Christmas music originated?

I’m not talking about Joy to the World or Angels We Have Heard on High.

These are great hymns, of course. But their history lies more in the Western Classical tradition.

I’m talking about secular Christmas songs like Jingle Bells, Up On the Housetop, and Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.

These were the songs that inspired Irving Berlin and Johnny Marks to pen songs like White Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Erin’s question inspired me to do a bit of research and blog about the history of classic secular Christmas songs.

So, here’s what I’ve found.

Jingle Bells

Did you know that Jingle Bells was a favorite drinking song at parties? That’s right! People would jingle the ice in their glasses as they sang.

Without a doubt, it is one of the most popular Christmas songs. Especially among children. I mean, have you ever had a child not request this song around the holidays?

Composed by James Lord Pierpont and published under the title One Horse Open Sleigh in the Autumn of 1857, Jingle Bells wasn’t originally intended as a Christmas song.

Some suggest that the tune may have been composed for a Sunday school choir. But this is often disputed due to the racy lyrics.

Jingle Bells, racy?

Perhaps… I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Up On the Housetop

Another Christmas classic, heralded as the second oldest secular Christmas song only second to Jingle Bells, is Up On the Housetop.

It’s author, Benjamin Russell Hanby, was a pastor. But he had a difficult time in the church due to his views on music in church services, the teaching of children, and opposition to slavery (www.hymnofchristmas.com).

It’s interesting to note that historians are not entirely sure if the opening lyric sings “reindeer paws” or “reindeer pause.”

But as with most old hymns and songs, Up On the Housetop boasts several stanzas. All of which one can mix and match to fit the occasion.

The song was first performed by Hanby’s children’s chorus in 1864, just three years before he yielded to tuberculosis.

Jolly Old Saint Nicholas

Many attribute Jolly Old Saint Nicholas to Hamby, the composer of the preceding tune, Up On the Housetop. But it’s an uncertain attribution.

The song may have originated from a poem by Emily Huntington Miller. It’s often performed to a melody composed by James Lord Pierpont, the composer of Jingle Bells.

Isn’t it fascinating how the composers and lyricists of this era worked together and used one another’s material?

Composers always have and will continue to collaborate in this way.

This is interesting.

Did you know that Saint Nicholas was a real historical figure?

Yep, sure was!

He lived almost 1,700 years ago and serving as a bishop in the early church in Myra, a city in modern-day Turkey.

CBN News recounts one story of Saint Nicholas –

[…] a man with three daughters fell on hard times. He didn’t have enough money for a dowry for any of his daughters, so they couldn’t marry. Legend has it that Nicholas secretly visited the family at night, dropping a bag of gold through the window.

There are many other stories of the generosity of Saint Nicholas – particularly to children.

However, Nicholas always insisted that no credit be given to him – but to God only.

So there you have it – just a brief bit of history behind some of the most beloved Christmas music ever composed!

Maybe you have something to add. Maybe you need to set me straight on something! Or maybe you’d like to share a story.

By all means, please leave a comment below.

And, Merry Christmas!!

Christmas Recital Time, Again?

Tree at Christmas recital

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Or is it?

Christmas recitals are just around the corner.

Are you prepared?

Better question – Are your students prepared?

Many Christmas recital to-do-lists look like this –

  1. Purchase food and drinks
  2. Tune piano(s)
  3. Create and print programs
  4. Collect recital fees
  5. Remind parents of due dates and recital times
  6. Extra piano lessons (maybe make-up lessons) before recital

The list goes on and on!

It’s difficult to accomplish these things when there are so many other items on the list!

The most important item being one-on-one time with your students.

Many of you have expressed to me that the biggest problems you face in the lesson room include lack of practice and lack of enthusiasm.

Well, I’ve told you that PracticeHabits.co is a resource for you. A resource you can rely on for helpful tips and tricks when things get tough.

Things can get real tough around recital time.

Let me provide you with one super fantastic tip that’s helped me time and time again with my students around recital time.

Introducing – THE STUDENT OF THE MONTH.

It’s something so simple, yet so inspiring to your students!

They have an opportunity to work hard practicing and preparing for weekly lessons and important events such as recitals and in return their efforts they receive the prestigious STUDENT OF THE MONTH award!

Now, maybe you already have a similar program within your studio.

Awesome!

Consider reimagining it this Christmas recital season just to light a little fire in your student’s bellies ; )

What if you gave this prestigious award away to several students during the month of December and rewarded them at the end of the Christmas recital?

What an honor! What a message you’d be sending to all of your students and their families –

Practice is important. Engagement is important. Your student has worked really hard in these areas and deserves to be rewarded!

It helps light a fire in the bellies of your other students as well.

Now, I used to award a certificate as well as a special piece of music to my students of the month.

It was a win-win, really.

They received a gift for their hard work. That gift was a piece of music. The students loved practicing these pieces!

Love and practice in the same sentence? Wow, what a beautiful thing!

I want to give you something. An award that you can pass out to your students of the month.

Please accept this fun and inventive arrangement of Jingle Bells for the late-beginner to the early-intermediate piano student as a token of my gratitude for your support of the PracticeHabits.co community.

Now, maybe you’re in need of an excellent piece for the mid-late intermediate piano student. Well, check out my original composition That Fall Feeling. I know you and your students will enjoy it!


The next three weeks are going to be busy. Remember to take care of yourself and your family.

And as always, allow PracticeHabits.co to fill you up with inspiration in the form of great articles and music!

Merry Christmas!

3 Creative Ways to Increase Classroom Engagement

student in piano classroom

There she goes again (eye-roll).

Taking her eyes off of the music and allowing them to wander all around the room!

Sigh…

She’s such a good student when she focusses.

It’s a common scenario. Little minds wander. It’s hard to sit still. It’s difficult to focus.

But there are ways to increase engagement.

Here are three suggestions on how you can increase engagement in your classroom.

I’ve used these in larger settings, such as youth chorus, and group music classes. But they’re easily adapted to the private lesson room.

1.) Movement and Play

This one’s important. Young kids need to move! Some more than others. Believe it or not, this is a scientific fact.

In her brilliant article, Why Young Kids Learn Through Movement, Lara N. Dotson-Renta says,

Children acquire knowledge by acting and then reflecting on their experiences, but such opportunities are increasingly rare in school.

She goes on to say that kids learn through movement and play. Imagination is key!

Yet such learning is increasingly rare in early-childhood classrooms in the U.S, where many young children spend their days sitting at tables and completing worksheets. Kindergarten and preschool in the U.S. have become more and more academic, rigorously structuring kids’ time, emphasizing assessment, drawing a firm line between “work” and “play”—and restricting kids’ physical movement.

But how do we teachers encourage movement and play? Especially with our limited teaching time??

It’s a simple as reinforcing things via short games and activities.

For example, my class loves Rhythm Popcorn.

I simply line two rows of chairs facing one another, clap a simple rhythm, and then point to a student to repeat the rhythm. The student then points to one another student and he or she claps the rhythm. So on and so forth.

It’s a simple game, but it certainly increases classroom engagement. The students have fun and learn all about steady and precise rhythm.

2.) Transition

It’s easy to overlook this one.

Imagine you’re six-years-old again and asked to sit quietly on the piano bench for 20-30-minutes.

What would you feel? What would you think?

In their article What is a Normal Attention Span, Day2DayParenting says,

Young children do have relatively short attention spans and generally do best when alternating activities which require sitting still and focusing with those that allow for physical movement.

The younger the student, all the more necessary to transition, and transition often.

The article goes on to outline young children’s attention spans –

Children ages 5-6 years old typically can attend to one activity that is of interest to them for around 10-15 minutes at a time and should generally be able to filter out small distractions occurring simultaneously in the environment. They may only be able to attend to an assigned classroom activity for only 5-10 minutes particularly if they find it uninteresting or difficult for them and do not have adult guidance to stay on task.

Keep things moving along. Don’t rest too long on a particular song or activity. I’ve found 3-5 minutes to be the ideal time for each activity. Sometimes longer or shorter depending on the day and child.

Sometimes longer or shorter depending on the day and child.

3.) Visuals

Inspiration.com cites the following as benefits for visuals in the learning environment –

Visual learning helps students clarify their thoughts – Students see how ideas are connected and realize how information can be grouped and organized. With visual learning, new concepts are more thoroughly and easily understood when they are linked to prior knowledge.

Visual learning helps students integrate new knowledge – According to research, students better remember information when it is represented and learned both visually and verbally.

Visual learning helps students think critically – Linked verbal and visual information helps students make connections, understand relationships and recall related details.

Who wants to stare at the same thing for 30 minutes? Especially boring white and black notes on a page?!

Consider changing it up.

Why not print music on green or red paper around Christmas? Or orange paper leading up to Halloween?

This is a fun (and super easy) way to increase classroom engagement.

I’ve found small, handheld whiteboards to be wonderful teaching tools. Drawing examples of notes, rests, etc., on these boards and asking students to name them adds an extra layer of engagement and anticipation in the lesson room.


We need to remember those childhood feelings and embrace them. This is how we keep the sense of wonder and imagination in the classroom.

We want our students to long for the next piano lesson, asking questions such as, what’s Mr. Chris going to do this week? And, I wonder what game we’re going to play this time?!

Let’s encourage creativity in the classroom. After all, encouraging creativity, play, and imagination encourages learning.

Now teach, and teach well, you amazing teacher, you!

Beginner – Three Quick Teaching Tips

child - beginner profile looking in fthe camera while playing piano

You and I probably agree that one of the most rewarding experiences any piano teacher has is the bright-eyed, bushy-tale beginner’s first piano lesson.

There’s nothing quite like helping the young beginner place her little hands on the piano.

“Hold them up,” we say. “Oops, not too much, though,” we continue.

I remember the first time I helped my daughter place her hands on the piano. Her little thumb and pinky barely reached C-G in the five-finger position!

We quickly dove into her primer lesson book. And by the end of our first brief 15-minute lesson together, she had learned to play a song!

I’ll never forget the exuberant look on her sweet little face. Oh, what joy filled my heart to see her glow so bright!

Music has a way of doing this, right?

It touches hearts, young and old.

How many times have you witnessed this radiant look on the beginner’s face? So many times, I’d imagine.

I’ve taught a lot of beginners over the years, and I can tell you one thing from my experience – the beginner’s glow never gets old!

What a great privilege and opportunity it is to share the gift of music!

It’s not something we take lightly. We embrace the challenge and pour a whole lot of love and quality music instruction in the beginner’s bowl.

On that note, here are 3 quick tips to help you prepare for the very first piano lesson with a new student.

1.) Rhythm first and foremost!

Rhythm is the most essential and important musical element. Steady and precise rhythm lays the foundation for excellent musicianship.

It’s so important that beginning students walk away from the first lesson with a good understanding of basic rhythm (quarter notes, half notes, whole notes).

Nothing fancy. Just basic rhythm.

Nicole Murphy of Music Teacher’s Helper offers some great tips on teaching rhythm.

2.) Teach a complete song on the first day.

You want your beginning piano student to walk away from the first lesson having accomplished something. I always recommend teaching a complete song during the very first lesson.

It’s important to note that this is a simple song. Hopefully, a song that reinforces the basic rhythmic foundation you’ve laid in the first lesson.

Not to mention, parents are really impressed when their child walks away having learned a song on the very first day! Keeps them coming back if you know what I mean ; )

3.) Share your expectations with the student and parent (especially the parent)

You have to set expectations. Without them, students wander from lesson to lesson without aim! Parents do as well.

Make sure to set high, but reasonable expectations from the start. It will save you, the student, and parent heartache and headache!

Consider Alex Spiegel’s thought provoking article Teachers’ Expectations Can Influence How Students Perform.


What are some of your tips? What’s one of your stories? Has a student touched your heart and soul in a profound way? What keeps you coming back to the lesson room again and again?

I invite you to share your tips and stories with the PracticeHabits.co community below.

Thanks for reading!

Understanding the Creative Child

Let me begin by saying all children are creative. But somewhere along the way society stifles their creativity. My hope is that this post will inspire you and others to tap into and encourage this creative curiosity.

For many, “creative” is a scary word. For others, a badge of honor to be worn and flaunted. But to the true creatives, it simply describes who they are, what they do, and how they do it.

Webster’s defines creative as,

Having or showing an ability to make new things or think of new ideas.

I’ve taught many kids who fall into the “creative” category. Though contrasting in many ways, such as temperament and work habits, they all have one thing in common – they’re unique. Don’t read into my tone. I don’t mean this in a negative way. But in a way that is sincere to who they are as uniquely “creative” individuals.

In his popular blog post 20 Things Only Highly Creative People Would Understand, Kevin Kaiser says this about creative people,

1.) They have a mind that never slows down.

2.) They have difficulty staying on task.

3.) They need space to create.

4.) They focus intensely.

5.) They feel deeply.

If you love a highly creative person, you probably experience moments when it seems like they live in a completely different world than you. Truth is, they do. But trying to change them isn’t nearly as effective as trying to understand them.

I learned early in my career that teaching the right-brained kids the same way I taught the left-brained kids wasn’t going to work! (Fun Fact – right brain vs. left brain is actually a myth. Read about it here.)

I made the learning process painful for them (and myself) through forcing them to conform to my regular teaching style. Thankfully, I learned to adapt my approach and quickly became a greater service to my students and their families.


Are you struggling to teach your creative child? Do your creative students seem disengaged in class? There are steps you can take to re-engage these children and see vast improvements in their learning.


Don’t try and make creative students conform to learning regiments that work for “most” kids.

The current education system operates on an outdated model developed alongside the nineteenth-century industrial revolution. In his book, Industrialization and Public Education, Jim Carl says,

As educational access widened, […] the study of the classical curriculum declined, and, by the twentieth-century, the importance of schooling for both national economic development and individual mobility took on the status of an “education gospel.”

Unfortunately, students are born and raised to be cogs in a machine. Seth Godin explains,

Since you were five, schools and society have been teaching you to be a cog in the machine of our economy. To do what you’re told, to sit in straight lines and to get the work done.

Forcing creative students to conform to a set of rules that vehemently opposes their nature is counterproductive at best and downright destructive at worst!

Camden, one of my past piano students, fell into the “creative” category. I was excited to take him on as a student because he exhibited more zeal for the instrument than most beginning students. I quickly became frustrated when he showed up unrehearsed week after week. I told his mother that he needed to sit at the piano for at least 30-minutes per day. She agreed, and that’s what he did. He SAT at the piano 30-minutes each day. He wasn’t actively pursuing his studies. He was bored out of his mind!

I sat down with him and his mother at the following lesson to discuss a new game plan. You see, I realized that I had been approaching our lessons in the wrong way. My approach was stifling his creativity and ability to learn the piano in his unique way. I began asking him to bring one piece each week that he was excited to play. His eyes lit up! “Really,” he said, “I get to pick my music?” Allowing him the freedom to choose just one piece per week had positive effects on his passion for learning the instrument.

I told his mother not to worry too much if he didn’t practice for exactly 30-minutes each day. I encouraged her to let him practice at his pace – 5-minutes here, 10-minutes there. I saw vast improvements in his playing and ability to focus. Most importantly, I didn’t squash his zeal for learning how to play the piano!

Of course, there were days when he showed up unprepared, and he occasionally had bouts of unproductive activity. But this became a rarity instead of the norm.

Giving a creative child space to digest material in his way is one path to successful education.


Once you’ve found the “secret sauce” for what makes your creative students tick, spread it on thick!

One of my past piano students hated classical music. I mean she hated it so much as to leave these particular piano books at home on purpose before attending her weekly lesson! She would have never admitted to this, but I knew what she was up to. “Oh, Mr. Chris,” she’d say, “I totally left the Beethoven book on my piano. I’m so sorry!”

Sure she was…But I digress.

Now, I believe it’s important for every music student to have a healthy diet of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. But if it ain’t what makes a student tick, then it ain’t gonna cause her to pursue her craft with passion and excellence.

Once you find the “secret sauce,” spread it on thick!

I quickly realized that this particular student enjoyed music with a funky groove and sweet harmony. She loved jazz! We began to focus on tunes such as Straight No Chaser, Autumn Leaves, So What, among other classic jazz tunes in her weekly lessons. Her love for learning increased exponentially. She even brought the classical piano books now and again!


Form environments that encourage creativity.

In their blog post Teaching for Creativity, written for The Center for Development and Learning, scholars Robert Sternberg and Wendy M. Williams write,

We routinely witness creativity in young children, but it is hard to find in older children and adults because their creative potential has been suppressed by a society that encourages intellectual conformity. We begin to suppress children’s natural creativity when we expect them to color within the lines in their coloring books.

This resonates with me.

I have to make sure that I don’t discourage my young, budding artist when she’s crafting her Crayola masterpieces. I catch myself wanting to say, “Sweetie, make sure you color in between the lines.” Or, “Don’t you think her hair should be brown instead of purple?” But I must give her space to create.

I need to form an environment where she feels free and safe to explore and express herself. To be creative!


All children are unique and learn things differently from one another. Don’t try to conform the creative child. Don’t underestimate his ability to learn things in his way.

He still needs guidance.

Guide your student in a way that compliments his ability to learn and form a safe environment that promotes creativity.

I leave you with this thought-provoking quote by Seth Godin –

If we give kids the foundation to dream, they will figure out the grammar and the history the minute it helps them to reach their goals and make a difference.

You possess the tools for teaching creative children. You just need permission to use them.

Ladies and gentlemen, you have permission.

Piano Lessons – 4 Proven Strategies to Get the Most Out of Them

Boy in piano lessons
Piano lessons are expensive, costing an average of $90-120 per month ($1,080-1,440 per year). And rightfully so! We spend years studying our instruments and hours pouring into our students each week.
 
Unfortunately, a majority of students miss a tremendous opportunity to make the most of their weekly piano lessons, squandering their parent’s money and sometimes their own. It’s a sad but legitimate reality.
 
Fortunately, there’s hope!
 

Parents don’t have to continue wasting their time and hard-earned money. They don’t have to discontinue piano lessons.

 
For over a decade, I’ve been encouraging students and parents to take full advantage of their music instruction by following these four straightforward and practical steps. And you can too!

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Hand this 8-Page Guide out to your students and their parents. You’ll see a vast improvement in their performance and practice when they implement these 4 straightforward and efficient strategies!
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1.) Come to the lesson engaged and ready to learn.

Private music lessons typically last between 30-60 minutes and occur directly after school. Students are tired at the end of the school day and may have difficulty staying awake or engaging in a meaningful way. A quick snack just before the piano lesson can help with this.

Most students should not nap prior to their lesson as they arrive in a groggy state. I remember my piano teacher scolding me for napping. I also recall thinking about sleep while playing my pieces for her. I wasn’t a stellar student!

One final and important note on this – find a music teacher that engages your child in a meaningful way and inspires her to pursue her instrument beyond the weekly piano lesson.

2.) Videotape the music lesson.

Most music teachers send their students home with a weekly “things to do” list. Making a list is a good habit, but from my experience, students do not engage with the list unless prompted by a parent. For this reason, I recommend videotaping weekly piano lessons.

Music teachers cover a lot of material in a lesson. The rehearsal video is a relevant way for students to re-engage with this material during the week. Review it just before or during the first practice at home.

(Side note – the first practice at home should occur on the same day as the lesson or the very next day while the material is fresh on the student’s mind.)

3.) Parent involvement.

This one seems obvious. I believe that many parents would say that they’re involved. But I would argue that most parents are passively involved and not actively involved. Let me explain the difference.

An example of passive involvement –

“Johnny, get downstairs and practice the piano. I’ve set the timer for 30 minutes. Now go!”

It’s a great thing that you’re encouraging (making) your student practice, but there’s a better approach. Here’s an excerpt from one of my recent blog posts, Understanding the Creative Child. You’ll notice a shift from passive to active involvement.

Camden, one of my past piano students, fell into the “creative” category. I was excited to take him on as a student because he exhibited more zeal for the instrument than most beginning students. I quickly became frustrated when he showed up unrehearsed week after week. I told his mother that he needed to sit at the piano for at least 30-minutes per day. She agreed, and that’s what he did. He SAT at the piano 30-minutes each day. He wasn’t actively pursuing his studies. He was bored out of his mind!

I sat down with him and his mother at the following lesson to discuss a new game plan. You see, I realized that I had been approaching our lessons in the wrong way. My approach was stifling his creativity and ability to learn the piano in his unique way. I began asking him to bring one piece each week that he was excited to play. His eyes lit up! “Really,” he said, “I get to pick my music?” Allowing him the freedom to choose just one piece per week had positive effects on his passion for learning the instrument.

I told his mother not to worry too much if he didn’t practice for exactly 30-minutes each day. I encouraged her to let him practice at his pace – 5-minutes here, 10-minutes there. I saw vast improvements in his playing and ability to focus. Most importantly, I didn’t squash his zeal for learning how to play the piano!

Quality over quantity. 5-minutes of focused practice is much more desirable than 30-minutes of unfocused practice.

4.) Practice perfectly and slowly.

My dear friend and colleague, April O’Keefe says,

We’re all told that “practice makes perfect.” But this is not true. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.

I couldn’t agree more with this statement.

Students often sloppily play their pieces in the practice room. Time and time again, I’ve told students to restart their pieces and play slowly and accurately, often making them reset having missed only one note, even at two minutes into the music! This approach may seem harsh, but it works! Students engage much more deeply when forced to think about the music on a cerebral level.

There is no room for error, at least not in the rehearsal room.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus and faculty member Noa Kageyama has this to say about slow practice,

I had forgotten all about this [slow practice in music] until very recently, when I had the pleasure of interviewing Philadelphia Orchestra concertmaster David Kim (incidentally, check out his personal jetlag remedy).

He revealed that one of the keys to his success (and building confidence as well) is super slow practice. A process of practicing in slow motion – while being fully mindful, highly engaged, and thinking deeply in real-time about what he is doing.

Will students continue to make mistakes? Of course! I’ve yet to meet a human who doesn’t. But the severity and frequency of these errors will grow increasingly small when preceded by thoughtful and efficient practice habits.


I hope you find these tips helpful. I’ve taught countless music students and experimented with many approaches to aid them in their weekly studies. These four are among the top strategies. Implement them and I promise that you’ll see a huge improvement in what your student takes away from weekly piano lessons.

Download Your FREE 8-Page Guide...
Hand this 8-Page Guide out to your students and their parents. You’ll see a vast improvement in their performance and practice when they implement these 4 straightforward and efficient strategies!
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