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Every year, Band, Orchestra and Choir Directors face the dilemma of programming music for their Holiday Concert.

Holiday Concerts used to be a joyous time, where students could perform their favorite holiday songs for their families.

It has come to the point where school district administrators, with no music background, have decided which pieces are best for the music ensembles to perform.

Should the Holiday Concert piece selection be the school administrator's choice?

Should we just get rid of Holiday Concerts and program similar material like the Spring Concert?

When did the Holiday Concert Program Controversy start?

Back in the 1980's, winter concerts were called Christmas Concerts. Most of the selections were Christmas Carols or famous classical pieces written for the Christmas celebration. Even Jewish students and parents didn't really protest or complain, and performed and attended those concerts. (I don't even remember one Jewish holiday piece in any concert I ever performed in.)

In my high school, we always ended the Christmas Concert with the Band, Orchestra and Chorus joining forces with alumni to perform the Hallelujiah Chorus. Regardless of religion, it was such an inspiring moment to participate in as a student and as an alumnus.

Since Hanukkah was rarely mentioned in papers or media at the time, I didn't think twice about all the emphasis on performing Christmas Carols.

Things started to change across the country in the mid 1990's. Parents started to get offended, not only by the piece selections, but also by the lyrics (or implied lyrics) of the pieces. Students of other religions started to opt out of singing/performing certain pieces at the concerts.

Many school districts decided not to upset the parents (and possibly lose much needed support for the school budget), and chose to limit the choices of selections to be performed. Nothing overtly religious, or in some districts even implying religious overtones, was allowed at these concerts. Music Directors had to be very careful about choosing their programs.

Concerts that used to be called Christmas Concerts were now named Holiday Concerts or Winter Concerts.

By the 2000's, some parents felt that not enough Christmas Carols were performed at holiday concerts. Lawsuits started to emerge and the Supreme Court, as recently as 2010, upheld a ban on performing Christmas Carols in a New Jersey school district (which affects New Jersey and Pennsylvania).

Some Directors have stopped programming any kind of Holiday music because the controversy is too much.

It seems that all sides were not happy on this issue.

Here's a few tips to prevent those Holiday Concert Program Blues…

The main dilemma for Music Directors is creating a Holiday Concert program that is musically pleasing, educational for the students and pleases administration and parents. Concerts are meant for the audience's enjoyment, and it is important that the holiday spirit is reflected for everyone. The reality is that we have to follow what our administrators want, regardless of what we believe. Not programming any Holiday songs defeats the whole purpose of the holidays. As Directors, we need to be creative in how we approach this.

  1. Most Directors equal out the program to include selections that reflect Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa. This was difficult for instrumental ensembles even as recently as five years ago, as there were very few selections for Hanukkah. This was especially true for Directors of beginning ensembles. We would create our own arrangements since there were none available.
  2. Be sure to pick your selections months in advance and check with your school administrator if needed. Be prepared to support your song choices and explain the educational benefits for the students by learning and performing the piece.Try relating the choices to areas that coincide with Common Core. Work with your English or Social Studies teachers so that students can learn about the piece in many various ways. Administrators love interdepartmental cooperation, and you will garner the support of your colleagues.
  3. Some Directors like to use pieces that reflect Peace, Love and Understanding – universal themes that are evident especially around the Holidays. Wouldn't it be really great to put on a powerful combined performance with your school's band, chorus and orchestra? (In my head, I am hearing We Are the World. Even though this song was originally intended to increase awareness and funding for African famine relief, the words of the chorus reflect compassion and peace. Some word substitutes  – to replace”God” – may be needed for the verses however.)

We are the world, we are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day
So let's start giving
There's a choice we're making
We're saving our own lives
It's true we'll make a better day
Just you and me

4. If you feel really strongly that more Christmas (or Hanukkah) songs should be performed, how about bringing your ensemble to your local nursing home, library or community center and         performing for those community members. That's great community service and PR for your program.

5. Get the support of your Parent Booster Group. Many of these parents are supportive of the music teachers. Get feedback from them about what they think the audience will like and not like. (A great group to join is the National Association of Music Parents. They have excellent resources for Music Parents, Music Directors and Booster Groups.)

Action Steps:

  1. I would like to know what you think about this topic and my suggestions. Leave a Comment below.
  2. Do you have any suggestions for more pieces that reflect the universal themes of Peace, Love and Understanding? I would love to know what they are – list them in the Comments below.
  3. Are you getting ready for the upcoming Solo Festival Season? Want to be super-prepared to Ace your Performance? Check out the NYSSMA De-Mystified program here to get the results you want.