At Christmas, most people don’t care much for fancy showpieces of obscure Christmas pieces, they just want to hear a familiar carol played on that magical harp.
So keep it simple and spend your practice time increasing the quantity of your Christmas pieces rather than focusing on just a few intricate ones.
One fantastic way to make little pieces sound big is to create medleys. Once my harp students are at the level where they can play the A version of some of the Christmas carol from that red Sylvia Woods book (you know you all have it on your shelf somewhere!), I have them start creating medleys. It’s a great book to start from, because all the pieces are in either C or G, and they are fairly straightforward arrangements, with chord symbols and 2 versions of each piece.
To create a medley, start by choosing 2-3 pieces in the same key. Yes, you can create medleys with key changes, but if you are just learning, keep it simple and stay in the same key. It is also easiest if the songs have the same time signature. The tempos can be different; we’ll talk about that more in another post.
Songs that last less than a minute (even less than 2 minutes) sound abrupt and choppy when strung together. If you can smooth out the transitions by connecting them into strings of 3-5 minutes each it is much less jarring for the listeners.
Once you have your 3-5 minutes’ worth of pieces, decide on an order. I frequently start with the slower, softer pieces so I can end on a joyful note. But with the right dynamics and musical phrasing, you can go the other way too.
When I create a medley from short pieces, I usually play each piece through twice (2 verses). If you are an experienced enough player, you can play the A version and then the B version as your second verse. Other options are to go up an octave for one verse (or even half a verse) or change up your harmony by adding in extra notes and chords (using the chord symbols as your guide).
I’ll use the example of Angels We Have Heard On High and Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Both pieces (in the red SW book) are in G (have 1 sharp) and in 4/4 time. They also have similar tempos and even have similar themes (angels), so they fit together beautifully. You can play them as written, except in the last measure of each verse, fill in extra notes from the chord to keep the rhythm going. For example, at the end of Angels We Have Heard on High, instead of playing a whole note in the left hand, play an ascending G arpeggio as quarter notes. Do the same thing in your second verse and transition directly into Hark the Herald. If you don’t want to deal with page turns, play both verses off a single sheet (either the A or B version) and put the second song right next to it. Yes, you will need to make a copy of the music to do that. Don’t worry, it’s legal if it’s for your own use. Otherwise, you would have to tear your book!
Another addition I sometimes make is to play a short intro to my first piece in the medley. This is usually the last line or phrase of the piece. In our example piece, I would play “in Excelsis Deo” which is the last 3 measures, as my intro.
At the end of your medley, you may want to play one extra chorus of one of the songs. For example, after playing your 2 verses of Hark the Herald, play the chorus of Angels one more time. Then end with something fancy, such as a large chord, large arpeggio, glissando, etc.
Do you create medleys? What tips can you share with your fellow harpists in the comments below?