This article written by Dellinda Ebeling, Texas Representative
Church handbell choirs are unique in that their primary function is to be a part of the congregation’s worship experience, But there are so many ways in which that can be accomplished. It can be incredibly exciting too. In January 2013, I suddenly became a no-one-else-wants-to-do-it-but-I’ve-never-directed-anything-before director, and the first thing I did was Google “handbells.” I found Handbell Musicians of America, read about National Seminar, and decided immediately I wanted to go — who wouldn’t want to go to beautiful Portland, Oregon. I started seeing handbells all over Facebook and “liked” every group I found. I found other groups online where tough questions are debated. People laughed at me when I told them that in spite of ringing for at least fifteen years that I did not know there was anything beyond our little church bell choir and the Raleigh Ringers who I had seen on PBS one time. Wow! What an amazing world opened up to me! My love for all things bells and the people who ring and write for them has exploded. How I wish I had known years ago that directing would be my passion.
So what have I learned in two short years?
- Never hesitate to ask questions. I learned on the job with my ringers’ patience and the patience of many people I had never met but who still are always willing to share experiences and advice. I have made great friends with composers and arrangers when I had questions about their music. I have learned something new every week…if not almost every day. I even own my own baton and no longer feel weird using it.
- As a director, continue to study and to prepare. You should tell your ringers about the people who write the music. You should push them to do more than they ever thought they could. By respecting their time and talents, you can use them in as many ways as you can dream. You should do some of your bell work in plain sight at church where I guarantee people will stop to talk to you about your bells; you may find new ringers or subs. Welcome new people into your group and teach them what they need to know. Always remember that a person who cannot read music can play one bell as they integrate into the group and gains confidence. Play the beautiful music of the faith, but work up Chicken Dance in costume for an unforgettable church variety show.
- As a ringer, ask questions. You should feel comfortable giving feedback when you like the music your director selects. You should be willing to learn another position or technique. Always be faithful in attendance and on time. Tell your director as far in advance as possible if you will be absent so your position can be covered by a sub. Be positive.
- Even church choirs can find new ways to ring other than the usual once a month in worship. Develop a small collection of twelve-bell music to play at Christmas, after worship, or at any time of year at a nursing home, where the homeless are fed, or on a street corner. Find quartet music and play with eight people or trios with six. Use social media as well as your voice. Posting and talking about your group can open up opportunities for invitations to play at community events. Dig through your library for some oldies but goodies — those two or three octave pieces your big choir will never play but which work beautifully for a smaller ensemble to play at another event such as a retreat, banquet, or a holiday hospice service. Use that older music to play in worship with your diehard ringers who do not want to take the entire summer off. Set up at the mall to play your Christmas music. Start a new program (such as one for kids or beginning ringers) and involve your ringers in helping you. Keep your bells visible and busy.
- If you don’t know who the other groups are in your area, start looking around. We put on a festival last October and discovered over fifty other handbell groups within one-hundred-fifty miles just by searching through church websites. We don’t know how many we missed because we couldn’t find a mention of handbells or how many churches may have bells stored away in dusty closets. Through the connections we made, we have the beginnings of our own small Facebook page and are on speaking terms with each other. I became a permanent sub ringer for another church choir and have even directed them a couple of times when their director was out. I have borrowed ringers from three other churches for rehearsal and had one of them play with us for more than a month when my ringer was not available for a holiday program. He brought his own bells so he and my ringer could both learn the part side by side for the date each would play the piece.
Becoming involved whether you are a director or a ringer is crucial to your continuing development, and you’ll have so much fun getting to know other people who love bells as much as you do. Join Handbell Musicians of America. Use your membership or your church’s membership to get your ringers to join as submembers for almost nothing, and talk some of them into going to outside events with you. Go to a national event at least once (you’ll be hooked!). Go to an event in your area. Volunteer to serve — that’s how I became a board member. The opportunities are there just waiting for you!