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Bells of the Bay

The mallets are flying fast and furious, arms are circling, marts tapping away. As the last mart sounds in the reprise of Tammy Waldrop’s “When We All Get to Heaven”, all eyes are on the Director and the smiles are instantaneous. As I give them all a wink and secretly blow a kiss, we all know, “we done good!” Yes, we made it! We really did it!

The Birth and Coming to Age of a Community Choir: Performing, Inspiring and Serving our Community

Just two years ago, Bells of the Bay was nothing more than a dream, a vision I held for the Chesapeake Bay area of Maryland. Living in a small town on Maryland’s rural Eastern Shore, I found myself with several others playing and directing in several handbell choirs. I was serving as the Mid Shore Coordinator for Area III of HMA and seeing many problems among the struggling bell choirs in the area. Linda Simms, director of Capital Ringers in Delaware, and I started to meet and discuss the problems of the area’s handbell ministries: directors who were well intentioned but underskilled, poorly trained ringers, the lack of budgets to educate, and the ever present problem of recruiting ringers. In a small town area like ours, that is magnified since we don’t have the population to draw from. In my county, there are six bell choirs and they share ringers. There simply aren’t enough to go around. We saw one roadblock after another blocking the way to success.

I had a vision. Could we train ringers for churches with no handbell program or churches with inactive handbell ministries? Could we offer training to directors or would be directors? Could we reach out to small rural churches with full sets of bells stashed away for decades in closets with no way to ever put them to use? Could we reach churches that had never even seen a handbell? How can we help churches with budgets that will never be able to send choirs or a director to a festival or training event? How could we train new ringers who could then be fed into existing programs so in need of ringers? That vision seemed too much for any one person to tackle, so I shelved it…and tried to forget it.

But weekly, as I rehearsed with various choirs, subbed or directed for missing directors, I thought 'I can’t let this keep happening to this art in this area'. I watched as choirs shrunk from 5 octaves to 2 ½ octaves, watched directors ringing two positions while trying to direct as well, saw directors scrambling for substitutes who could sight read because we all couldn’t attend multiple rehearsals, saw directors who didn’t even know the most elementary of ringing skills. In December of 2013, I spoke with five ringers in one of the choirs I played in about forming a small ensemble to ring just a few carols at a community Christmas festival. It was a smashing success and Bells of the Bay was born when they all said they didn’t want to stop. So, we recruited ten ringers for a three octave choir from various choirs in the area. We went to a local non-profit foundation to help us get started and to take care of our finances. Several ringers offered to be officers and one ringer offered the use of his church and handbells. We were off and running by February 2014.

Starting a choir from scratch was a bigger job than I ever anticipated: getting a Facebook page, a website, coming up with fundraising ideas, finding concert venues, designing brochures, posters, publicity photos, writing bylaws. How in the world would we ever make this group viable? Ringing was only a small part of the seemingly endless jobs the officers and I took on. First, we affirmed that the vision I once had for this area was truly a niche that no one had tackled before. We would focus on the small churches, churches that needed training, churches that had no program or the inactive program and offer training for anyone who wanted to learn to ring. We realized that in today’s economy, big festivals were far out of the reach of many churches today. They simply couldn’t afford it, so many got absolutely no training and it showed. How would we reach them? I looked at the group I’d brought together. We had ringers with 1 year to 24 years of experience. Yes, some needed extra training. Most had bad habits from lack of training and lack of knowledge. We spent time honing technical skills, getting those matching “circles”, coordinating echos, marts, swings, correcting malleting. If we were going to be the trainers for new ringers, we had to have our own technique in order too. As we worked on Level 2-3+ music, it became clearer each week, how we would reach the community. We would continue to play this level so that we could say, “Yes, this is something YOU can do! Yes, it is within the reach of church handbell choirs!” We didn’t want to intimidate any prospective ringer by “wowing” them with something unattainable.

By July of last year, we were ready to go. We rang for morning worship services in two small churches after a premier performance in a local nursing home. The people were amazed! Some had never even heard of bells, much less seen them. They were asking when we could come back. After three “concerts”, word was getting out. We were asked to ring at a memorial service in Baltimore and scheduled a thank you concert for the church that is lending us their set of Schulmerichs (purchased in 1987 and never used!!) and four Christmas concerts at small churches and an art gallery. We scheduled workshops that concentrate on teaching technique---yes, some of these choirs have directors who have never held a bell. We scheduled a Read and Ring to raise money, as well as giving ringers and directors the opportunity to just have fun and see new music. All of these workshops are scheduled locally, at a fee very affordable for individuals and local churches, yet also fundraisers for us.

Yes, there were glitches along the way and sometimes I just wanted to give up. We lost our rehearsal church and bells and had a mad scramble to find other bells, chimes and equipment to use. A search for another rehearsal venue almost had us rehearsing in my living room! But each time one door closed, another door would open … an unexpected donation check would arrive, or a generous donation of unused tablepads, so we knew we were doing the right thing. We realized that we not only had a mission of education, but we were also a ministry as we decided to support mission ministries in some of the churches we played for.

As I reflect back on where we started and where we are now, I can scarcely believe just how far we have come. During the last Christmas season, Bells of the Bay did six concerts, last spring we offered seven concerts and between now and Christmas we will do nine concerts including serving as an accompanist (along with a full orchestra) for two performances by Easton Choral Arts.

So, we march forward in our mission to bring handbells to unreached areas. We never know what each week will bring, but with the dedicated volunteers that are Bells of the Bay, we will continue with our efforts to teach and train and hopefully get the struggling choirs in our area the assistance they need; new ringers and new training, to make their programs a success.

G. Shelley Reel, CCM is Artistic Director of Bells of the Bay, a community handbell choir based in Easton, MD. Their mission is education, inspiration and entertainment. She has been a church musician for 40 years, serving in six denominations in four states. She is also a Strategic Partner with The Gladstone Group, LLC, a consulting firm specializing in non-profit and church programs where she consults in worship development and enhancement.