'Tis the season of school concerts again. I realise this post is too late to save you from your fate. However, with the experience fresh in our minds let the campaign to make them less of an ordeal in the future begin here and now. Depending on where you stand – proud relative in the audience or nervous teacher/accompanist in the wings – my guess is you will have found the greater part of the event rather tedious. The children plod through overly long pieces that are technically beyond them and that they don't understand. To all but the doting parent, for whom the child can do no wrong, one such exhibition is forgivable, two wearing and three irritating. An entire evening peppered with such fare takes tedium to a level so deep and trance-like it's almost an out of body experience.
Even when interspersed with ensemble pieces and items from the choir of reluctant, but pressed, cherubim, it remains hard to bear, for these items are far too lengthy and drag. Of course there are many factors to juggle. A cast of thousands means bums on seats and that is good for the supported charity or the music department's coffers. And yes, inclusiveness is a good thing; everyone gets a chance to shine. However, there is no need for all six verses of Once in Royal David's City. Nor is it necessary to feature each section of the orchestra in every instrumental.
You may call me mean-spirited, or Ebenezer Scrooge for that matter, but believe me: I've paid my dues. As parent and as teacher over many years I've sat through more of these events than I can remember.
Here are ten tips for teachers masterminding these events:
- Keep the bigger picture in mind: When auditioning or rehearsing a piece remember it is only one of many.
- Avoid solo performances: Unless you have a genius in your ranks these can be tedious. They can also provoke enmity. If you feel someone would benefit from a solo spot, feature them in an ensemble piece.
- Vary the fare and try not to have two or more similar items unless the overall structure demands it.
- Allow plenty of time for rehearsal. Stand up to your superiors in demanding this. Make sure they know that time spent practising is directly proportionate to the quality of the event. The event that showcases their school.
- Bear in mind the demographic of the school and the ethos it is promoting. Nine lessons and carols may go down well in a rural parish but may be unsuited to an inner city area with a broader ethnic mix.
- Apply quality control. If you really must include a piece you know to be poor or unready, shorten it. This will save embarrassment for both performers and audience. It will also mean the piece improves faster in rehearsal.
- Choose material suited to the ability and understanding of the students. Otherwise they come across as trained monkeys.
- Make sure children understand the words they are singing. Is it only me who is nonplussed by 'Lo he ab horse snot the burgeon swoom' in O Come All Ye Faithful? If you feel uncomfortable explaining the meaning of the words they shouldn't be singing them.
- Edit. Be ruthless. Cut and cut again. Pare it down to the bare essentials and everyone will love you for it.
- But: make sure everyone is in something. Kids in the show means adults in the hall.