Skip to content

The Handbell Negotiator

by Nicholas Barnard on March 2nd, 2012

Rima Greer of Campanile and Handbell Musicians of America emailed me a few weeks ago to ask if I’d be willing to write a ringEr-Note on my experiences of ringing handbells in a quartet. I pretty quickly said yes, and it just recently went online. It got the title of “The Negotiator” by the editors, which is appropriate given the theme I wove through it. I’ve posted it below in all of its glory, and tweaked it a bit for those who don’t know all of our acronyms and whatnot of the Handbell Community. Enjoy!

I first started playing handbells when I was twelve. I joined The Miami Valley School‘s Middle School Handbell Choir as a logical outgrowth of my vocal choir and theatre performances. I continued to play handbells through my senior year of high school with the exception of a misguided half year break when AP Statistics and Handbells were scheduled for the same period, and I put academics before music. Halfway through my senior year, I switched to playing handbells, as I wasn’t able to focus on academics for other reasons and figured I should at least make beautiful music.

In college, I looked around a little for a handbell choir to play with, but I didn’t find one. Life happened, so I stopped looking. I moved to Seattle just over five years ago. After a year, I went visiting several Unitarian Universalist Churches. On my first visit to University Unitarian Church I knew I had found a congregation that was a home for me. That evening I was browsing the website, and when I found that they had a handbell choir I practically woke up the whole building. I sent an email to the director, she replied, and I agreed to join the handbell choir that night.

After not touching a bell for over eight years, ringing as part of a choir was quite difficult and it hurt my brain. I was able to do every individual part of performing: how to ring a bell, how to read music, how to follow a director, how to listen to my fellow ringers, but doing them all at the same time was quite difficult. I stuck with it and by the end of that year I once again felt that I knew what I was doing.

Through my church handbell choir, I learned of a workshop on beginning ensemble skills offered by Nancy Kirkner, a Seattle handbell soloist. I found some of the beginning activities to be quite easy, so Nancy provided me with a few exercises that were a bit trickier. I continued to take Nancy’s classes, and I joined a group that she took to the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers’s Area X conference in 2010. I had an awesome conference experience, and was thrilled by my first massed ringing experience!

Near the end of our rehearsal cycle for Area X, I received an email from Kay Hessemer on behalf of herself and two other ringers from Nancy’s group inviting me to join a newly forming handbell quartet. I joined but was hesitant on spreading myself too thin. I still remember our first few weeks of rehearsals. I played the soprano position and I walked out of rehearsal exhausted; my brain hurt, I felt discouraged, and I realized I couldn’t read music as well as I needed to.

I took care of the music reading part by getting a music flashcard app for my iPhone. In my many years away from performing music I lost the ability to look at a note and tell you what note it was. Through all of my handbell experience at church I simply had counted the notes from middle-C, the G of the treble clef, or the F of the bass clef. This worked in standard Alluredian assigned choirs where I played two to four notes for the whole piece, but it didn’t work for playing in a quartet, since by the time I counted up from the G everyone else was four measures past that note.

I realized later that I walked out of those initial rehearsals exhausted because I was building new skills in my brain. I was used to weaving where I’d work through three or four bells, then I’d go back to ringing just two of them for a bit. Reading through a passage of notes, figuring out how to get my hands around the bells in time, and putting the bells back in place where they belong wasn’t something I had done yet. (Putting bells back in place also took my quartet mates a little while to figure out as well. As a result, we half seriously called ourselves “Bells Out of Order” for several months until we decided on the much more prosaic name “The Resonance Ringers”)

It has gotten easier as I’ve played quartet music to simply sight read my way through a new piece. It’s not perfect, and some decisions that I make during sight reading hamstring and foul up my playing later. I’ve learned that playing quartet music is very much about negotiating. First, you must negotiate with your previous decisions on how to play a piece. I’ve worked on pieces where I don’t settle down on my decisions on how to play the piece for months, and there are times when I’ve found myself within a week or so of a performance deciding on a better way to ring through a specific passage. (I generally don’t implement that change until after the performance.)

You must also negotiate with your fellow players. In quartet music the bell you just played often will be played by another player. (Often I’ll find while I’m sight reading that the bell I’d like to play is in the hand of Jean Leavens, our usual alto ringer. Although, she claims that its usually the other way around.) As I’ve worked through pieces we discover many times where we need to work out how we’re going to work on a passage. Perhaps I’ll put down a bell sooner than I usually would’ve because another Jean needs it, or we’ll work out passing bells between players.

We also negotiated for access from University Congregational Church to borrow their fourth octave of bells to play alongside the third octave we play on at our usual rehearsal space, St. Dunstan’s Episcopal. In exchange we’ve agreed to play for two of their services per year.

Sometimes you need to negotiate with the music editor, and those who have played the piece before you. I have on more than one occasion taken Wite-Out to hand markings and notations that I find distracting. Also, in many pieces Joann Miles, our usual tenor ringer, finds the sea of ledger lines above the bass clef to be difficult to read smoothly, so she either rewrites her part in the treble clef, or resorts to writing in the letter of the rarer notes. (Joann passes her thanks to all editors who put the tenor part on its own treble staff.)

Finally, you negotiate with the composer. We’ve found Bach to be a tough negotiator. We’ve worked on Charles Maggs’s arrangement of Bach’s “Bouree II” from English Suite #2. We still nervously glance at the tempo marking of 140 beats per minute to the quarter note, but that has been a great challenge and we’ve been able to play it at around 120 beats per minute. We have also looked to add embellishments to some pieces. Right now, we’re working on an arrangement of “Amazing Grace” from 1989. It’s beautiful, but it was arranged before singing bells, so we’ve added a few of those at the beginning and doubled the melody in a the last verse.

Playing in a handbell quartet is one of the best music experiences I’ve had. I get to engage with music at a deeper level than I ever have before, I’ve cultivated close friendships with three wonderful women who are “slightly” older than me, from three different faith traditions, whom I wouldn’t have gotten to know as well otherwise, and I get to play bells a whole lot more. What else is there?

So my friendly agreement with Handbell Musicians of America says that I need to put this on the page: “Reposted with permission from ringEr-Notes, an online publication of Handbell Musicians of America.” That being said, I never remember assigning my copyright to them. Alas, the Handbell community still has much to learn about copyrights.

From → Uncategorized