Michelle TejadaThis article written by Michelle Tejada, Area 9 Past Chair

After a handbell performance, a woman approaches some ringers and talks to them about their choir. When she expresses an interest in playing handbells, the ringers invite her to the next rehearsal. She enthusiastically agrees to come. However, she never does. Unfortunately, this seems to be a collective experience in the handbell world. How do we turn interested people into committed members of our handbell program?

Commitment seems to be a problem these days. Churches struggle to find volunteers for leadership positions. School Booster Clubs lament the lack of parent participation. Handbell ringers and directors express frustration over the difficulty they have covering everything. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the volunteer rate declined from 29% in 2003 25.4% in 2013. It is getting harder to find people willing to commit their time to any organization. We must think of new ways to get people involved and keep them engaged. Here are some ideas.

Explain what is required. Make sure the interested person knows what you expect of members. In addition to rehearsal time, consider costs and mandatory performances. Sometimes people agree to something without understanding what is required, resulting in frustration when the expectations are not met.

Offer a ride to the first rehearsal. Going into a room in which everyone knows each other and what they are doing and you know no one and nothing about handbells can be daunting. Sometimes finding the rehearsal room can be a challenge if the handbell choir practices in a large building. When the newcomer arrives with a member, it removes some of the uncertainty of the new experience.

Obtain contact information and follow-up. If the interested person does not attend the next rehearsal, contact him. Try to find out why. There may be things that can be done to accommodate the potential ringer.
Offer training. If a newbie is joining an established choir, provide instruction before the rehearsal. Assign a mentor to assist during the rehearsal. Be encouraging. If the first rehearsals are a good experience, the new ringer is more likely to commit.

Is child care an issue? Maybe your organization can provide child care? Perhaps a member has an older child who could entertain a younger child during the rehearsal? While children playing across the room might create a distraction, the choir would be accustomed to playing with distractions that may occur in performance.

Sometimes the day or time of rehearsal might be an obstacle. Unfortunately, that is harder to fix. If it is only a few minutes, maybe the ringer could be allowed to miss the bell set-up and instead participate in putting the equipment away or come early to set-up in exchange for not putting bells away. If multiple people have declined to join due to the rehearsal day or time, it may be worthwhile to investigate a change. Why do you rehearse when you do? It is because that is always when we rehearsed? What if you can modify the day, keep your current members, and make it easier for others to join?

If possible, have a scholarship fund. If your members are required to pay dues, purchase their gloves, or buy their performance outfit, financial concerns may be a barrier to participation. Maybe there can be a fund to help defray some of the initial costs.

What if someone is afraid to commit to a long-term ringing relationship? Offer a beginner boot camp. Sometimes a person will be willing to try if there is a set time frame. Ask for four weekly rehearsals and performance at the end. There is curriculum available that is perfect for this. Hopefully, the ringer will be hooked on bells by the end and ready to commit to the traditional handbell choir.

Plan by the semester instead of the year. Maybe someone has a conflict for only a few months a year? Perhaps the ringer can ring in the spring but not the fall? You might be able to keep a person in the handbell program by working around another commitment.

Allow position sharing. Maybe two people can share a position and each play half-time?

While most handbell choirs take the summer off, some families have more time to give in the summer. Allow participation by promoting ensembles during the break or by ringing year-round.

Some groups have dealt with long commutes to handbell rehearsal by rehearsing every other week for a longer period. While this might not be ideal, it may be an option.

Once the logistical problems have been overcome, we need to ensure that participants want to come to rehearsal. Creating strong bonds between members will make handbells a must-do activity. Find out what the group wants and incorporate it. Include some social time so that members get to know each other. Celebrate birthdays and accomplishments. Refreshments can be served for these special days. Add a meditation to the rehearsal. Involve the ringers in repertoire selection. While playing Lady Gaga on handbells might not work in worship, you can have a concert that includes popular pieces. Finally, don’t forget to say “Thank you.” Make sure that your ringers and director know that you appreciate their time and talent.

Do you have ideas that have worked for you? Share them on our Facebook page. I look forward to hearing new ideas and strategies.

“Volunteering in America is on the Decline,” Anna Bernasek, Newsweek, 9/23/2014.