This article was written by Stevie Berryman, Artistic Director of Houston Chamber Ringers
Let’s start at the beginning. For the last few centuries, the very first toy given to an infant has been: a rattle. Or, as I like to call it, a pre-bell.
From the time we can grip a toy and swing it into our loving parent’s nose, we have been given rattles. They are wonderful toys for babies. They are our first means of scientific exploration. Babies learn quickly the differences between shaking a rattle fast or slow, loud or soft, how it tastes when dipped in applesauce versus how it tastes when dipped in the dog’s bowl. Rattles are also our first means of external expression, or the ability to make a fuss without using our own voice or body. Besides just shaking it, you can bang it on the wall (the earliest example of wall-mart), you can throw it at Sissy, or you can see how many times mama will pick it back up.
All of which, I believe, contribute to the fact that any average child or adult can pick up a bell and make noise with it. Without any instruction they can ring it fast or slow, loud or soft, and dip it in applesauce if asked to do so. Such knowledge has been coded into our operating systems so early in the development process that it is instinctive. This is the bedrock of Stevie’s Theory of the Global Conspiracy of Bad Technique. You see, babies are terrible handbell ringers. Their technique is awful, and largely uncorrected by the adults around them.
So they mature into individuals who have spent years practicing the motion of ringing the wrong way. It’s no wonder why the proper ringing stroke seems harder to learn the older you are: you have far more years practicing it incorrectly. So before the ringing motion becomes fluid, we must overwrite our factory-setting-infantile-rattle-rattling technique with something more pleasant to the eye and ear.
This means that when teaching the mechanics of ringing fast or slow, loud or soft, we directors can be our own worst enemy. We say things like, “ring louder” without giving explicit instructions on how to do so; everyone assumes that knowledge is intuitive. And it is, to a point. But there are many ways to make a bell louder: change your grip, change your stroke, change your speed, change your energy, ring further from your body, ring higher above the table. Our job as directors is too take the process of “ringing louder” out of our subconscious and move it to the conscious. Only when ringers are fully, consciously aware of what their body does to “ring louder” does that action become consistent and repeatable. This is not a difficult problem for ringers to overcome, unless their circumstances are working against them. And by “circumstances,” I mean “director.”
That’s right, directors, it’s our fault. Directions such as “ring louder” are largely unhelpful and will produce unsatisfactory and inconsistent results without more detailed explanation. To ring louder, musicians must change something physically that they are doing (I have found it unwise to rely on a handbell’s ability to read minds). What do you want them to change…their speed, force, posture? The time to make these decisions is not during rehearsal. Spend time with your music in score study outside of rehearsal. This is not the time to be superficial; you are not entering a casual relationship with this music. Spend some quality time together, take it for a walk on the beach, really get to know what it’s trying to say. You want to…ahem…put a ring on it. You must first know what you want from the music before you can tell your ringers how to create it.