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How to Play from a Christmas Songbook, Part 1

I know, I know. It’s the beginning of November. Most people are far from putting up the Christmas tree. But the thing with Christmas piano music is that you need time to practice it! So I thought I would start talking about Christmas music now, to help you get prepared for the upcoming season.

Here’s what we’re going to talk about in Part 1 of this video:

  • How to find the melody line
  • How to read the chord symbols
  • How to use the given chord symbols while following the bassline idea

The Reader’s Digest Merry Christmas Songbook

The Christmas book that I’ll be using for this video is The Reader’s Digest Merry Christmas Songbook. I’ve been using it for most of my life. I like that the arrangements are all on 1-2 pages, which makes it much easier to sing and play from (no constant page-flipping!).

The downside of this book is that the arrangements are intense. They’re full of big chords and huge leaps – not for the feint of heart. Still, I’ve been using this book with my students for years, and you can edit the arrangements to be as easy (or not) as you want them to be.

I do think many of the arrangements in this book are quite beautiful, and some of them I’ve learned faithfully (like The Christmas Song). One other downside of this book, though, is the vocal parts are often extremely high, but that’s what a transpose button is for! You could transpose on the spot, too, but that’s obviously a bigger challenge.

Experiment #1: O Little Town of Bethlehem

O Little Town of Bethlehem serves as a good starting point, since it’s short and sweet, and there aren’t any crazy left-hand patterns.

Step 1: Where’s the melody?

If you have a Christmas Fake Book, this’ll be easy – there’ll only be one line of written music, and it’ll be the melody. In an arrangement like ours, there are two- and three-note intervals. Luckily, the melody is easy to find – it’s always going to be the top note.

This is because the top note is the most easily heard. If you’re working with a fake book and want to add “voicing” to your melody, you generally want to add those harmony notes underneath the melody.

To start, I often omit any right-hand notes that aren’t the melody. Once I get better at playing it, I might add some harmony notes in here and there.

Step 2: Reading the chord symbols

To keep things really simple, I’m going to use the chord symbols as a guideline for my bass notes. The easiest way to do this is to simply play a single note in the left hand.

For example, if my chord says “F” or “Fdim”, I’ll just play a single F in the left hand. If it says “Gm” I’ll play a G, and so on.

Note that you don’t need to be able to read or understand chords to do this – you just need to be able to follow the letters!

If you want to up the ante, you could play left-hand octaves instead of single notes. Still no chord knowledge required.

Step 3: Using the written bassline as a guide

If you’re using a fake book, you’ll only have chords written out – no left-hand notation. If this is the case, use your imagination to fill in the blanks of the left hand.

If you have a book like mine where the left hand is written out, I encourage you to mainly ignore it, except to get ideas on playing your left-hand pattern. In this music, the left-hand moves in half-notes for the most part, often playing octaves, but sometimes 6ths and other intervals as well. I won’t bother with those (especially in the early stages).

About halfway through the piece, we have some rapid-fire chord changes, so instead of our left-hand moving in half-note patterns, it’ll pick up the pace to quarter notes. This is an easy adjustment – keep following the chords and you’ll be fine.

Throw in a little damper pedal to smooth out the rough edges, and you have a sing-along-ready version of O Little Town of Bethlehem.

Let’s do one more for illustration!

Experiment #2: Silent Night

Silent Night is another 1-page arrangement in my book, but it has some interesting additions that make it quite beautiful.

Step 1: Where’s the melody?

Again, we’re looking to the uppermost line in the right hand – that’s our melody. Easy-peasy!

There’s also an introductory line which we can play in a similar way – to start, I simply read the top line of the right hand.

Step 2: Reading the chord symbols

My version, written for P/V/C, includes chords for the guitar that use a capo. But it also clearly indicates which chords are meant for the piano. I’ll be following those, of course!

A simple way to get started with a lovely piece like this is with broken chords. Broken chords played in 6/8 time mean there will be 1 chord, played broken twice – to a total of 6 notes per bar. I could do nothing but that, following the chord symbols, with the simple right hand – and the arrangement would sound nice.

Step 3: Using the written bassline as a guide

But let’s take it a step further. What are they doing in the left hand? Ahh, there’s this quarter-8th pattern throughout most of it. Not only that, but instead of playing chords, they’re playing a 158 pattern. So, Bb – F – Bb instead of Bb – D – F. I could switch my rhythm to that for the entire piece and it would sound great.

But there are some other details worth exploring here too. There’s a dotted 16th pattern that appears sometimes, and it echoes the 16th note pattern in the right-hand melody. Added to the ends of some bars, it makes for a really nice “filler” and keeps from everything sounding too samey.

Another thing I notice in this arrangement is the use of single dotted quarter notes in the climactic part of the piece – “sleep in heavenly peace”. This creates a point of contrast from the flow of the rest of the piece, and I think it’s a cool (and easy) idea.

So my end result is a hybrid of the written bass and following the chord symbols, which eases up my reliance on sight reading. Another great sing-along result!

Conclusion

I’m going to assume that you have a different favorite Christmas book than I do, and that’s great! You can follow this same process with a variety of different books, especially those that are written at a level much above where you’re comfortable with.

For me, I sight-read this book annually, sometimes playing through it many times in the season. At the beginning of the season, I play the arrangements very bare-bones, but by the end of the season I’ve often added in some interesting fills and twists. We’ll get more into that in the next video as well!

-Allysia

 

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