Rehearsal Plans for Christmas Cantata

This is only a general guideline based on my decades long experience with conducing volunteer church choirs, as well as my experience with performing these carol anthems with various choirs. I hope that you find this helpful. You may have a choir that can practically sight read anything you give them, or one that needs lots and lots of drilling just to learn their parts. Most choirs are somewhere in between. Of course attendance will be a large factor in how many rehearsals you will need. Try not to stress about it, and be flexible. For example, “Silent Night/O Jesu Sweet” is for 2 part choir, so may be performed by another choir, such as a youth choir, women’s choir, or even a duet. Also, any of the carols could be replaced by a congregational carol/hymn if it turns out that your choir will not be able to learn it in time. Another idea, if you do not have enough rehearsal time, is to learn and perform two of the carols, and then the next couple years to keep singing them while gradually adding more, until your choir is somewhat familiar with all the carols and you can perform the entire cantata with narration. “Manger King” has been popular with some choirs as a good piece to keep coming back to. “Silent Night/O Jesu Sweet” could become a tradition, singing it every year at the end of a Christmas service. Also, the only piece that requires an instrumental part is “God’s Gift and His Love,” which has a flute part. In other carols the instrumental parts are optional. If you do not have the facilities or help to run sectionals, then just rehearse everyone together. Sectionals are designed to help make better use of rehearsal time.  

Rehearsal 1
1. With the piano accompanist playing the parts, have choir sight read measures 4-43 of “Carol Medley.” Do it more than once, until they feel comfortable with it.

2.Sectionals: Put the men and women into separate rooms with pianos, with a helper to run one of the sectionals. Teach them the parts in the rest of “Carol Medley” (m.46-end). The men have the melody, so it will not take much time unless the tune is unfamiliar. Then take out “What Child is This?” and teach them the refrain (m. 44-58). Explain that the rest will be performed by a soloist, and that they repeat the refrain at m.78 to the end, the only difference being a Picardy (major) third in the last two measures. 

3.With everyone back together again,  Sing the refrain of  “What Child is This,” and then “Carol Medley” with the accompanist still playing the parts.

Congratulate them on having learned the first 2 out of 5 carols.

Rehearsal 2

1. Review the refrain in “What Child is This?”

2. Sectionals: “Carol Medley”46 to end. Teach them the parts to “God’s Gift and His Love”

3. Everyone together, practice “Carol Medley” and “God’s Gift and His Love,” with accompanist playing parts as needed.

Rehearsal 3 (Accompanist still playing the choir parts as needed)

1. Sing through “Carol Medley”and  “God’s Gift and His Love.” It’s okay if they make mistakes at this point. Just use the run-through to find out where they need the most help.

2. Sectionals: Go through the parts they are having the most trouble with, and then take out “Silent Night/Oh Jesu Sweet.”

Women: “O Jesu Sweet.” The J in “Jesu” is pronounced like a Y, as in Yesu.

Men: “Silent Night.” After they have sung it all the way through (and mastered m.58-64) have them practice their entrance by playing the accompaniment in  m.35-40 just before they come in, and then make sure that they can find their first note. Do this several times, as needed.

3. Everyone together, rehearse “God’s Gift and His Love”

Rehearsal 4

1. Together, review “God’s Gift and His Love” (with accompanist paying parts if needed)

2. Sectionals: review “Silent Night/O Jesu Sweet”and teach them “Manger King”

3. Together practice “Manger King” with the accompanist playing the choir parts.  M. 34-58 may be sung by a quartet instead of the full choir if that would work better for you. Also, piano may play along as needed.

Tell the choir that they have now learned the notes of all five carols, and that the hardest part is over. Now it is time to have fun and make music! Explain to them that choir attendance is hugely important so that they will be able to put forth their best efforts in performing this cantata.

Rehearsal 5

Review  “Manger King,”  “God’s Gift and His Love,” and “Carol Medley,” in that order, either together or in sectionals, depending on how well they already know the music, and  paying special attention to any spots where they are having problems. Try to get some feeling into the music, such as dynamics and phrasing.  

Rehearsal 6

Now it is time for something new. They will hear “What Child is This?” in its entirety. If you have not yet found a soloist, now would be a good time to find one. I suggest that all the women sing through the solo part, because it’s fun, but also in case your soloist gets sick before the performance and you need a backup plan.

1. “What Child is This?” Sing through the entire carol, having the pianist plunk out the parts, and letting the women sight read the solo part, unless you already have a soloist there.   

2. It is time to put “Silent Night/O Jesu Sweet” together. A note about this carol: I have performed this, or listened to others perform it, and with varying results: everything from being so moving that most of the congregation had tears in their eyes (the good kind), and once when it fell flat because the choir was not well-prepared.    

Sectionals: review “Silent Night/O Jesu Sweet.”

Men, make sure that they can sing the whole thing with the accompaniment, with special attention to measures 57-end.  

Women: have them repeat O Jesu Sweet enough times so that they will be singing it in their sleep.

3. Together: Remind choir that the first time through the women sing “O Jesu Sweet,” and the second time through the men come in and everyone sings together.   

Rehearsal 7

From now on, you are going to either begin or end every rehearsal with “Silent/Night/ O Jesu Sweet.” Now would be a good time to assign the choristers who will be speaking various names of Jesus. I suggest having two people standing at the mike, and alternating. Sing through the whole thing (it takes 7 minutes) including the ending that will be sung with the congregation with your choir singing the traditional 4-part harmony.  

Chose the carols that need the most work to rehearse. From now on make sure that you are regularly addressing the usual things, such as singing in tune, tone quality, blend, diction, phrasing, expression, posture, support, breath, and presentation. 

Rehearsal 8

Now is the time to make absolutely sure that everyone knows their parts, by having the accompanist play the piano accompaniments rather than the parts.

1. Together work on “Carol Medley” and “Manger King.” For both carols, the choir should begin to look up more, out of the music folders. In “Carol Medley” they should be able to look up without any difficult in m.16-29, 39-43, and 62-end. In “Manger King” the choir should look up during the “Noel” refrains: m.25-33, and 82-end. The endings of all the carols should be memorized. 

2. Sectionals if needed

3. Together sing “Silent Night/O Jesu Sweet,” including speaking parts.

Rehearsal 9

1. With the pianist playing the accompaniments, work on “God’s Gift and His Love” and “What Child is This?” with soloist. In “God’s Gift and His Love,” the choir should look up during the refrains, m. 26-33, and 66-end. In “What Child is This?” the choir should look up as much as possible during their parts.

2. Sectionals if needed.

3. Together sing “Silent Night/O Jesu Sweet,” including speaking parts.

Rehearsal 10

Work on the carols that need the most work.

Rehearsal 11

Polish, polish, polish. Rehearse everything. Have choir rehearse “Manger King” and “God’s Gift and His Love” with flute player, and “Silent Night/O Jesu Sweet” with cellist and organist.

Rehearsal 12

Run through the entire cantata in the chapel with everyone, including instrumentalists, organist, and narrator. Focus on presentation: getting the eyes out of the music folders and looking happy.



Other music that you might want to use for Christmas

4 Hand Piano Duet on “O Come all ye Faithfull”

May be played alone or as an accompaniment to a congregational hymn, with or without the organ. I wrote it in such a way that it would match the traditional harmony in most hymnals. This score may be transposed as needed.


“Away in a Manger” vocal solo with piano accompaniment. This has been very popular. It combines two traditional melodies, and may be transposed into any key. May be used to replace one of the carols in the cantata, or to be performed another time.


How to get the most out of your choir rehearsals


1. Have everything organized ahead of time, including the music in the folders.

2. Let the choir members understand that they need to come to all the rehearsals, and on time, in order to put together a 25 minute cantata and do the beautiful job that you are sure they are capable of.  

3. Start rehearsing earlier rather than later. You may find that you will have to cancel some rehearsals because of inclement weather, church conferences, or illness.

4. If possible, make sure you have a backup person who can conduct a rehearsal if you can’t be there. Also, have a backup rehearsal pianist. You will need two pianists in order to run sectionals.

5. Make sure you are in control. Suggest (nicely) that they don’t talk to each other during rehearsals. Get the work done as efficiently as possible. Always have the pianist play the choir parts with them before trying to sing with the accompaniment.        

6. Invite your soloist, instrumentalists, and narrator to some choir rehearsals.

7. More than anything, choir is supposed to fun. Laughing helps people sing better. Be upbeat. Encourage. Help. Think positively.

8. Pray a lot. (This should have been the first thing on the list.)  


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