Getting Out of the Box

by Lee Hinson, D.M.A.
Oklahoma Baptist University

First, I want to thank Area 9 of the Handbell Musicians of America for awarding me the Kristopher Jon Anthony Memorial Scholarship which helped me attend my first National Seminar this summer. The event in Cincinnati was incredible. While I currently direct a handbell choir that has been around a while, we are in the process of rebuilding momentum and redefining who we are at our university. I wanted more resources and ideas to help me get “out of the box” and take our ensemble to a new place musically. Our students are ready for it. So I needed to be more ready to meet that challenge.

Some of the non-track sessions I attended dealt with bell trees, finding your audience, how to play with praise bands, and even change ringing, not to mention a couple of reading sessions. And while I learned something at every session I attended, I had three primary goals for the week. I wanted to ring from memory, gain greater proficiency as a player of multiple bells (I did learn how to ring six-in-hand), and also discover some creative ways to ring away from tables. So I signed up for Rima Greer’s Handbell Theater Track. Rima has a unique perspective on handbells and writes a column called “Burn the Box” in Overtones.

While she did send us one score to memorize ahead of time, I KNEW there had to be more to this track because we had a half hour performance on Friday to fill. I was not disappointed. We learned two more pieces after we arrived, completely off-table, no music, and interwoven with choreography – all in one day. Actually, the bass bells were not always off-table but played a malleted walking bass line for two of the numbers. I played bass bells on the other piece and did not have a table but instead used two padded chairs (a first for me). A trap set also played along with us for all three numbers, adding to the ambience.

So how did we learn music without music? By rote, chord theory, and pitch memory. Our repertoire was old rock songs with only three chords and a widely-known melody. We learned the song in sections of either melody, chords (like guitars) or bass. For the pieces with no music, we worked them out on our own as a section, then we put the sections together. Once the music itself began to gel, Rima would begin the artistic process of adding choreography and movement. This was indeed a challenge for most of us since only one or two had true theater dancing experience. And details flexed almost to the last minute until we finally moved into the actual performance space.

My take-away from the Handbell Theater was on several levels. First, don’t be afraid to try new and unique things with handbells. Second, you do not need a table for everything. Third, depending on the musical style, I can take a more relaxed approach to damping the sixth octave and above with performers playing multiple bells. If you want to see a video of one of the pieces, the following link will take you to YouTube for a look: (This is an unlisted site, by the way, so you must share the link if you desire others to see it.)

I guess the ultimate highlight for many at the conference was the opportunity to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a Cincinnati Reds game. Wow! It was an incredible experience. The folks at the national office did a tremendous job of working with the Reds organization to set it all up, then handling the logistics of moving 200-plus ringers and multiple six-octave sets of handbells from the convention center to the stadium and back. We got this score in advance and memorized our bell assignment. With this article you can see a picture of part of the bell choir as we lined up just before the game.

I do not know if this is some kind of record. But I do know that Cincinnati baseball fans now know how moving and beautiful handbells can be! The Handbell Musicians of America web site has a brief video of part of the rehearsal in the convention center. Fox Sports has agreed to provide a video of the performance in the stadium to the HMA and hopefully that will be up on the web site by the time this article is published. Go to the site and check it all out. My take-away for the performance at the Reds game? Well, I plan to buy the arrangement for my ringers (it fits three to six octave ensembles) and play it at a basketball game sometime this season. That will be a first for our school and our handbell choir! If you want to preview this piece, it is a Guild copyright, item number AG36050, arranged by John Behnke. It is very approachable (level 2) and has an optional cymbal part.

The National Seminar will be in Portland, Oregon next summer. If you have never been to the National Seminar, let me encourage you to get out of your box and start working on a way to attend. As part of that, be sure to apply for the Area 9 scholarship for national event.