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Home > Articles > Don't Let Levels be Limits

Don't Let Levels be Limits
Kevin McChesney
There will be a Notation Conference after the National Seminar in Dallas on June 24, 2005. This conference is part of an ongoing project to establish standards of notation in handbell music and to continually revise those standards according to the needs of the industry. An important part of the Notation Conference is to review the AGEHR Difficulty Level System. This system was established some years ago, and has undergone several revisions. Much to the Guild's credit, much attention is given to the need to continually review and refine this system. Co-chairs for the conference are Dr. John Behnke, David Weck, and myself. So I felt it fitting to offer a few thoughts on the AGEHR Level System. Obviously since I have been a part of the development of the system, I believe in its value. I think it's important, however, for directors and ringers to keep three important considerations in mind concerning the AGEHR Level System: 1) The difficulty levels you see on published music are, of necessity, subjective in nature. Despite some very sincere and very effective efforts to create standardization, rating of music is fundamentally based on opinions and experience. There is a great deal of flexibility and variety in the levels as they are spelled out. So there is a wide range of music assigned to each level. There can be (and are) VERY challenging Level 3 pieces, and there can be (and are) Level 5 pieces that, despite a few tangles, are quite accessible to the handbell choir that often plays Level 3 music. Don't let the Level labels choose music for you or tell you more than just some basic information. It is still YOUR job to explore the music thoroughly and make sure it is a good fit for your group! 2) The Level designations are not complete. The categories themselves are defined as completely as possible, but music is not written to fit perfectly into any given set of criteria within the level system (with some exceptions). Some random examples: A Level 2 piece may contain several measures of a syncopated rhythm that is tricky for your group. A Level 5 piece may have a mixed meter, but a mixed meter that is repeated consistently for a good deal of the piece and once learned presents few problems. A Level 3 or 4 piece may have a substantial number of bell changes using traditional assignments, but with a little judicious re-assigning they become very simple. The Level designations make a good guideline, but you know better than anyone what your group needs and can play. Use the Level System ONLY as a guideline! 3) The Level System exists for one purpose - to offer a guide as to the difficulty of a piece of music. That is, they apply to the music, NOT to a handbell choir! There is NO SUCH THING as a Level 3 choir! Or a Level 1 choir, or a Level 5 choir, etc. The Level system applies to the music and gives some basic information as to what has been written into that piece of music. The system does NOT apply to choirs and how well they play or how experienced they are! A group that has handled Level 3 music successfully will easily find many Level 2 and even Level 1 pieces rewarding, will find an abundance of Level 4 and even Level 5 pieces that are very accessible, will find some Level 3 pieces to be very simple to play and others very difficult. Labelling your choir as a "Level 1" or "Level 4" choir leads to eliminating an abundance of music that would be presented wonderfully by this choir, and also to trapping the choir into playing too many pieces with the same set of challenges and entanglements. Levels apply to music, NOT to ringers, NOT to handbell programs!! Kevin McChesney >From the Handbell Classroom Newsletter, a service of Handbell University. To subscribe, go to