And Other Mood Music For Your Holiday Party


November 07, 1996|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Successful holiday entertaining doesn't just depend on having plenty of good food and interesting guests. Ambience also matters. But even hosts who pay painstaking attention to place settings and decorative wreaths often overlook the most important mood-setter of all: music.

Few things speak to our sense of the season as directly as music does. Currier and Ives prints may suggest what a traditional Christmas should look like, but it's the sound of classic carols that tells us how such a celebration should feel. Moreover, much of what we know about Santa -- not to mention Frosty and Rudolph -- comes from songs. How else would kids everywhere know that "He sees you when you're sleeping/He knows when you're awake"? (And how else would we get them to be good, for goodness sake?)

Yet music remains something most hosts take for granted. People who wouldn't even consider serving ready-made appetizers or store-bought desserts think nothing of popping any old CD into the stereo, and leaving it on repeat.

That may be convenient, but it's seldom very effective. Because not only do even the best seasonal CDs have weak spots, but relying on a single CD reduces the music's potential effect. If you wouldn't build a centerpiece using only one kind of greenery, why limit your party's musical palette?

Granted, no holiday host wants to have to do double duty as disc jockey, running off to change CDs every 15 minutes, but you don't have to do it that way.

If you have a CD changer with a multi-program function, you can set up the music before anyone arrives, and simply hit "play" as the first guests pull up. Although the exact procedure varies from machine to machine, the basic principle is the same: Once the discs are loaded into the machine, you go from disc to disc choosing the songs you want to hear (and, just as important, the ones you don't). That way, you can be sure the machine plays "Jingle Bell Rock" without making you hear "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."

Just make sure you have the CD boxes in hand, to ensure that the track number you program corresponds with the song you want to hear.

An even better way to put your personal spin on the evening's music is to make a compilation tape. Obviously, this takes a little more work, since in addition to choosing and sequencing the music you also have to put it on tape. But the rewards can be so much greater. This way, it's no problem if there's only one good song on a particular album; you can select songs as freely as any DJ.

Moreover, once your cassette is completed, you can dub copies and use them as party favors. Really give your guests the gift of music!

But the greatest advantage of making a tape is that it allows you to focus both the theme and the mood of your music.

For instance, if you're planning an intimate evening with a few old friends, you may want to keep the music warm and quiet, stressing church-style choral arrangements and low-key New Age instrumentals. If, on the other hand, you're organizing a large-scale, family-oriented bash, you should opt for big, upbeat versions of traditional carols -- the sort of thing that, after a few eggnogs, could easily lead to a sing-along.

Music is also a great way to articulate a more specific theme. Say you've decided to throw a "Christmas in the Tropics" party. What better way to make people forget it's 20 degrees outside than to serve a selection of Hawaiian-style seasonal songs (from Don Ho to Arthur Lyman, you'd be surprised how many Hawaiian Christmas albums there are)? Likewise, a selection of traditional French carols compliments a Provencal menu as well as any wine.

You should be careful not to go too far with theme tapes, though. It may seem like a good idea to shore up an Early American motif by relying solely on songs sung by the colonists, but unless your guests are aware that "Slow Traveller" or "Bethlehem" are classic American carols, the significance of the selections will be lost on them. Although the specific renditions may be unfamiliar, always try to be sure that at least half the songs on your tape will be recognizable by your guests.

As for making the tape, here are a few tips:

Always be sure to cue the tape before recording. Cassettes all have a few inches of clear "leader" at either end. You can't record on the leader, so it's best to get it out of the way before recording. Holding the tape with the side you're going to record on facing you, put a pencil or ballpoint into the hole on the right-hand side. Now, while looking at the bottom of the cassette, turn the pencil counterclockwise until you see the brown tape in the middle window.

Use the pause control. You know that you have to hit "record" when you start taping, but what you may not realize is that instead of hitting "stop" between selections, you're better off using the pause control. Not only does this make the taping a little more seamless, but it eliminates the risk of hitting "play" instead of "record."

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