With Christmas rapidly approaching, I thought I would share some tips for caroling. I actually wrote much of this just after the new year, but thought that tips on getting the most out of the caroling experience with kids wouldn't be of much use in January. (Music can be an important part of celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday and Valentine's Day, but caroling... not so much.) So read on for my tips on how you and your kids can get the most out of caroling without driving you (or your kid) crazy.
I actually went caroling twice in December 2010, which proved useful as there were a number of things I learned the first time (on a Sunday morning with a church group at a nursing home) that I used the second time (on a Monday night with friends from our -- and in our -- neighborhood). It wasn't the first time I'd gone caroling -- I'd also organized our prior neighborhood caroling event a couple years ago -- but I paid much closer attention to what seemed to work well.
1) It helps to have a single sheet. Books of carols are nice, but it takes too long to find the carol you actually want to sing. That's why my carol sheet (see below) is two pages, which can be copied back-to-back on a single sheet of paper. You obviously still need to find the carols, but it's much easier scanning a single page or two.
2) You need to have (at least some) songs preschoolers can sing. This is assuming, of course, that preschoolers are part of the mix (although it can be argued that simplicity is essential, and it's not that bad of an idea to stick to the simplest of carols). That fancy carol sheet is of little use (beyond that of pride) to the preschooler who can barely recognize their own name let alone the second verse of "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Songs I'd include in this category include "Jingle Bells" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," though I'd note that even more complex carols like "Deck the Halls" offer opportunities for the youngsters (kids pick up the "Fa la la la la..." part pretty quick).
3) Have a variety, but not too much so. You need to have a variety of songs so you're not singing the same three songs at every stop. Having said that, there is some value in everyone singing the songs 2 or 3 times during the caroling session so they actually master it, and if you have 30 songs (many of which will be unfamiliar to many of the carolers), you're not going to get that value. Also, you need to include a preschooler-friendly song (see above) at every stop.
4) Three songs. Like I said above, three songs. This translates to maybe three minutes of actual singing, which to me just feels right, and is long enough without having the kids (or, frankly, the carolee) get antsy.
5) Two verses. One verse plus a chorus just doesn't feel long enough. But singing the third verse ends up making you feel like you're the only one singing as the kids -- and the listener -- fade away as they hit ever-more-unfamiliar lyrical territory. It also usually puts the song at about a minute in length, helping you meet that three-minute time limit. Obviously, if you're singing with a bunch of experienced singers, then go ahead, add that third verse, your fellow choristers might appreciate it. Having said that, note #4 -- it's a little weird to be standing at someone's door for 10 minutes while you going into the finer points of what you and Fanny Bright did on that sleigh ride in "Jingle Bells."
6) One hour. Probably less, even, but definitely no more than an hour. After maybe 45 minutes, you could tell that the younger kids were getting antsy. In our evening caroling session around the neighborhood, we sang at I think 8 houses in about 55 minutes, which seemed just about right.
7) Someone needs to lead. There needs to be a song leader fielding song requests from the kids (or the carolees) and starting everyone off on the same note. If you have an instrument -- a ukulele or guitar -- that's helpful, but I've found I'm so focused on the lyrics (even ones I've sung dozens if not hundreds of times) that I don't end up strumming much.
7a) Don't forget the shakers and bells. I forgot this year, and it definitely lacked a little something compared to caroling of prior years...
8) No surprises. With one exception, we only caroled at houses who knew we were coming. That prevented us ringing doorbells and waiting in vain for someone to answer. It also prevented us from caroling at folks' houses who probably weren't in the mood or wouldn't appreciated ("You're Jewish?"). We had a slot open up and my wife decided to check to see if our neighbor would appreciate a last-minute caroling -- as it turns out, it had been a very long day at work for her and she politely declined.
9) Lots of cookies and hot chocolate. This is probably a good tip generally, but especially for caroling.
10) Bonus updated comment: This year we decided that instead of rushing from house to house for our neighborhood caroling we'd host a caroling party. We wanted to spend more time singing and less time walking. Now, this being the deserts of Arizona, we were able to host the caroling party outside at the very tiny park inside our neighborhood. (It was maybe 50 degrees at 6 PM, so very doable.) We had a few flyers delivered, and notified folks via the neighborhood's e-mail list and Facebook group. While it took a bit longer to set up the lights than we'd anticipated, we ended up singing the dozen or so songs on our song sheet and sang for probably 17-20 minutes. With a little more planning, we could easily add a few songs to the list and sing longer. We've already talked a little bit about making it more elaborate for next year.
But you don't have to host it outside or make it fancy -- though it probably makes it easier to attract passers-by. Inside can work just as well -- and has the added benefit of easier keyboard accompaniment and quicker access to the hot chocolate and cookies. ;-)
-- Here's the caroling sheet we used this year.
-- Better Homes & Gardens has a Christmas carol page, including a songbook you can use as is or to select particular carols for your own one-sheet.
-- Lori Henriques wrote a nice post on caroling parties that complements (meaning, goes with, not praises) a lot of what I've said here.