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How to sing 'O Holy Night'

Photo by Tobias Bjørkli from Pexels

Year after year O Holy Night comes out on top as The Nation's Favourite Carol in the UK, but what are its origins and what does it take to sing it successfully?

History of O Holy Night

The song O Holy Night that we know today had its start in an 1843 French poem called Minuit, chrétiens (Midnight, Christians) written by Placide Cappeau.

Cappeau's poem was set to music in 1847 by French composer Adolphe Adam, who released it under the name Cantique de Noël (Christmas Hymn). Adam was a prolific composer; by the time he wrote Cantique de Noël he had already created the ballet Giselle and several operas including Le postillon de Lonjumeau.

In 1855, the American classical music critic John Sullivan Dwight translated the carol from the French original.

The text of O Holy Night celebrates the birth of Jesus and what it means for humanity's salvation. The original composition by Adam has three verses with a high note at the end. Typically, however, only verses one and three are performed.

Adolphe Adam's background as an operatic composer explains why O Holy Night is so popular - it's actually a bel canto aria masquerading as a Christmas carol. The sheer emotion of the song makes it a crowd pleaser, but its long phrases and sweeping range from low to high also present an exciting challenge for all singers.

How to Sing O Holy Night

If you are going to sing O Holy Night, here are three strategies to consider. They come from my own experience performing the song, as well as coaching others.

1. Sustain without strain

When singing through long, high phrases it is tempting to work harder and harder in your throat. Doing this, however, will cause tension and scratching. It is important to use only as much effort as you need and to put that effort in the right places.

Get your whole body involved

Be flexible with your effort levels

Tip: When you have found your comfortable effort-levels, practice silently. Lip sync through the song while breathing out as if you were singing it and learn to recognise what balanced effort feels like in your body.

2. Choose the right key and tempo

O Holy Night spans an octave plus a fifth in range and all phrases are sustained. Make it easy for yourself by staying in your best range and don't go so slow that you peter out.

Be realistic about your range

Choose a tempo that works for you

Tip: Use a metronome to check in that you are practicing at your performance speed.

3. Start practicing early

O Holy Night is truly the mother of all Christmas songs, so you need to practice it little, often and well in advance of your gig. When you give yourself time to practice regularly, singing will feel easy.

Create a vocal practice routine

Create a performance practice routine

Be patient

Tip: Hydration is super important in sustained singing, so be sure to plan your hydration and steaming.

Final thoughts

Regardless of how you choose to perform O Holy Night - whether it be in a classical, gospel, rock, pop, folk or jazz style - you will need to sing sustained lines in a range that makes sense for your voice and give yourself as much time as possible to prepare.

As an operatic piece, O Holy Night is much trickier to perform than almost all other Christmas carols. Add on the early/late performance times and all the other things that life throws your way, and it can be a real bear of a task.

In fact, if you have never tackled this particular song before I strongly recommend that you get help from a vocal coach. Not only will it benefit you artistically, but because sustained singing is advanced singing, a professional voice teacher can give you the careful training and nurturing you will need.

With this gradual, intelligent training, a focus on using only as much effort as you need to and choosing the right key and tempo, you can sing O Holy Night successfully and both you and your audience will really enjoy it.

Stefan Holmström is a professional opera singer and voice teacher working with speakers and singers of all ages and abilities with a wide range of goals. He offers online and in-person vocal coaching and workshops from his studio in central Brighton in the UK. As an Estill Master Trainer (EMT), Stefan uses Estill Voice Training (EVT) as a baseline for safe and sustainable voice use.


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