The Magician Behind the Music: How Music Teacher Tracey Stakem Makes Magic Happen This Time of Year

December 12, 2016

The Magician Behind the Music: How Music Teacher Tracey Stakem Makes Magic Happen This Time of Year

If you’ve ever attended the annual Grymes Christmas Concert, you know how hard it is to tear your eyes from the stage. With students of all ages – ranging from our youngest three year-olds to our most veteran eighth graders – performing songs, dances and masterful wind orchestrations, it’s a riveting, toe-tapping experience for everyone in the crowd. You don’t want to miss a moment.

But if you do look around to observe the faces of teachers, parents, grandparents and friends in the audience during the show, you’ll see wonder in the eyes of every person in the standing-room-only crowd. What happens on that stage is magic, and that fact is not lost on any single person in the audience.

The master magician behind it all: music teacher Tracey Stakem. We asked her how she makes it happen and thought we’d share her – incredibly humble – responses as we look forward to another fabulous production on Friday:

This is your tenth (!) Grymes Christmas Concert, which has to be some kind of record. Do you still feel jitters before the show, or at this point is it “old hat” for you?

I’m usually feeling ready to roll on the morning of the show, but I still feel nervous energy as the show approaches. It’s a long build-up to the production and at this point I get more excited for the students than nervous. The students work so hard, and each year just gets better and better. I’m always so proud of them when they get up on that stage because I know how far they’ve come in just a few months.

When do you start the process of gearing up for a performance like this?

I start thinking about it towards the end of summer, when I begin making song selections. I have a few go-to places for songs, and over the years I’ve built up quite a catalogue of music to choose from. The bands start working right after school starts. Of course many of the students first have to learn how to hold and even work their instruments, and sometimes it takes a while to get the basic skills under their belts, but Upper Schoolers are usually the first ones to start playing Christmas music. Fourth graders, too, have to learn the basic skills with the recorders first, and there’s a lot of work in that, so I usually start with them around November. I’ve learned that the younger students will get bored quickly if you start the Christmas music too early, so they don’t start until after Thanksgiving. Overall, the Christmas performance is something that everyone is working towards for a long time. It’s definitely a milestone in the year and a huge goal for each class to work hard towards.

Your concerts have become famous not only for the incredible skill that you develop in your students but also for the fun and lively song selections – not to mention the choreography! How do you pick the songs?

I pick songs based on the skill level in each class, and that changes from year to year. I want to push the students, but I also want the songs to be attainable for them. There’s a lot of fun in the challenge, but it’s not going to be enjoyable for anybody if it’s frustrating for them. I usually start with some sight-reading exercises so I can see what they’re capable of and make final song selections based on where I know the students will be in skill level after I have some time to work with them, keeping in mind that I only see each class twice a week.

Twice a week! It’s incredible that you’re able to do what you do in just two class periods a week!

When you think about it, many if not most of these students with instruments will have only played their instruments for twelve weeks since the start of school! It’s all so new to them, so the fact that they can accomplish this performance so early in their skill development is pretty amazing. I give the credit to the kids. I push them and they rise to the challenge.

After ten years of this production, do any particular performances stand out in your mind?

Two years ago, we pulled off a pretty incredible surprise with an all-student song in the round of “Sing for Joy.” I loved how we slipped that in without anyone other than me and the students knowing it was going to happen. The kids loved the surprise, and watching Dr. Work’s face when the whole student body stood up around the room and sang the song together was wonderful.


Pictured: Last year’s surprise “The Holly and The Ivy,” sung by the entire student body in the round

Oh yes, I remember being in the audience for that. I know I got teary-eyed from it, and I really don’t think there was a dry eye in the house!

Yes, and last year’s “The Holly and The Ivy” was the same thing. The kids love to pull off the element of surprise, and when even the youngest ones can keep that kind of a secret it’s fun for all of us! They really enjoyed it, and I loved seeing the audience’s response. I was really proud of that moment.

Do you have any surprises in store for this year’s production?

Well, that’s top secret information. You’ll just have to wait and see!


This year’s Grymes Christmas Concert will be held in DuPont Gym on Friday, December 16th starting at 8:30 am. Can’t bear to miss the show? Be sure to tune in! We’re planning on streaming LIVE from Facebook Live!