This article written by Debra LeBrun, Virginia State Chair, for Area 3’s Bell-O-Gram May 2019 edition. You can see the original article and much more at area3.handbellmusicians.org
All of us who are involved in church music know that it has become increasingly challenging to engage young families and children in church activities and to get them to attend on a regular basis. I get it – lives are busy, there are a lot more activities available for children, and in most households both parents are working and struggling to juggle a complicated schedule. However, I encourage you to push through the challenges to offer ringing opportunities for the children in your church.
Right now I have 15 children in my children’s handbell choir (grades 2-5). You may be thinking that I am at a huge church with dozens of children in Sunday school. This is not the case. I am fortunate that our church is currently growing and we have an average worship attendance of about 190 between two services, but there are only about twenty children in this age range on our Sunday School roster. But, I am also fortunate that our children’s program is growing with more children in the younger grades, so I am optimistic about the future. That being said, how have I gotten to this point to have 15 children in the handbell choir. Here are some ideas that have worked at our church.
Don’t be afraid to start small. At one point I only had 5-6 ringers, but I made it work. 9 years ago this church had no children’s handbell choir and had only a small number of children in Sunday school, so it took some time to get to where we are now. Even if you only have a handful of children who are interested, be creative and find ways to get them ringing. Do a processional, play a bell accompaniment for an anthem, play along on a hymn, play chords while singing a simple song like “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” or “Jesus Loves Me”. Do whatever you can to get the bells into the children’s hands.
If possible, schedule rehearsals so they coordinate with another activity. For a number of years this wasn’t possible for us because there was no regularly scheduled activity that involved young families. But, then the church started a weekly program that included adult small groups and a dinner. Singing choir and handbells became the children’s activity during this program. This is now on Wednesday nights and has helped our attendance a great deal.
Does your church have a summer program or after-school program for children? Try to incorporate handbells into that activity. If you already have a children’s choir, start using choirchimes or bells during your singing choir time until you generate enough interest to add a separate bell rehearsal.
Be creative! You may need to write some of your own arrangements to fit the needs of your group. Often with children you will have a wide range of abilities, so arranging your own music lets you tailor-fit the piece to the abilities of your ringers. Start with a simple hymn tune. Put the melody in the high treble for your older children and then write a chordal accompaniment with whole notes and half notes for the younger children. Or, have the younger children on a melody part (perhaps doubled in octaves), then add a more complex mallet accompaniment underneath for your older children. Don’t be afraid to write out your own arrangements.
Make sure the children play regularly in church, not just at Christmas and Easter, but 6-7 times throughout the school year. They need to have a goal and feel a sense of accomplishment, the church and the parents need to see and hear the children, and the children need to learn about participating in worship and experience the joy of leading worship. This also creates an opportunity for other children to hear the bells and get interested in joining.
Make rehearsals educational and fun. Teach the children about music fundamentals and challenge them to answer questions about the music. Engage them in listening and taking responsibility for their own part. Sometimes I will break the choir down to groups of two or three ringers each. Each group will play their part for a certain number of measures and the other children will give them a score, listening for correct notes, technique, and musicality. Remind the children to be fair because they will each have a chance to be the ones playing and the ones scoring.
These are just a few ideas. But, you may be wondering why bother at all. It is a lot of effort and can be frustrating at times, but is it worth it? Seeing the children excited about ringing as their skills improve, rejoicing with them when they do a great job on a piece during worship, being pleasantly surprised when a ringer invites a friend to handbell rehearsal, watching a ringer show up early for rehearsal to practice their part, and watching them grow and develop as musicians – it is all worth it.
After all, if we are excited about handbells and the joy we have in being part of a handbell choir, shouldn’t we share that with the next generation? They will be our future adult handbell ringers.