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Home > Articles > More Than Ringing Your Own Bell

More Than Ringing Your Own Bell
Robert Ivey

Today, we live in a society that encourages independence and self-centeredness.  Think about some of the recent books on the list of best sellers: "Pulling Your Own Strings" by Wayne Dyer and "Looking Out for Number 1" by John Ringer.  The idea promulgated today is to concentrate on self first with little concern about our effect on others.  "I deserve" the right to be what I want to be - the way I want to be - how I want to be.  In several ways we have become a nation of self centered individuals.

The above statements may appear to be a rather harsh evaluation and possibly too severe.  However, in spite of this apparent self-centered attitude, it is totally impossible to go through life without some degree of interrelating, one with another.  Whether or not we realize it, we are dependent upon others for our very survival. But, let us bring all of this into focus as it relates to the art of handbell ringing.

The ringing of handbell demands a dependence of each group upon the other members.  The very nature of musical handbell ringing insists that ringing be in total relationship to what others in the group are doing.  It is without question one of the most team oriented efforts in which one can participate.  It would be a challenge to any coach to prove any sports activity to be more team oriented than that found within an accomplished handbell group.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you had four sopranos, each of whom could sing only two notes of the musical scale?  Even if their voices were of equal or similar tonal quality, it would be just about impossible for them to make music in this manner.  And yet, this is precisely the way that handbell ringers function.  When you observe even a moderately proficient handbell group, and than try to understand what they are doing, you might say to yourself: "It is impossible - I don't believe what I am seeing."  As a director, you frequently will be amazed at what is accomplished.  Handbell ringing appears to be difficult, and in some ways it is.  Yet, carefully chosen ringers can quickly begin to develop a unity of sound that is the genesis of an organized ensemble.

In any fine group of musicians, the performers are forced to submit, usually to the will of one person - the director.  Only when there is this common or "unconcerted" effort can there be any hope of unity and musicality.

But in handbell ringing, there is also the necessity of submitting to the musical feelings of others.  There is the constant need to sense the rhythmic and dynamic expression of the other members of the group.  This demands an awareness of what others are doing and how they are doing it.

Ringers will often ask their director if they should wait for another ringer to ring their note, and if so, how long?  The answer may sound ambiguous - "No, except maybe for a split second."  Each ringer must have a sensitivity to the ringing of others; they must listen to the rhythm and the dynamic level.   A handbell group with a ringer that doesn't do this is like a pianist with a sprained finger that doesn't function in conjunction with the other nine.

Not only does handbell ringing demand musical dependence one on the other, but the group depends physically, one on the other.  In other words, it is practically impossible to perform with one member of the group (team) missing and it is extremely difficult to hold a rehearsal with a member missing.  The ringers are not only dependent on each other as to "how" and "when" a bell is rung, but on the fact that the bell is rung at all!  If a person is absent, no one rings that person's bell because they are busy with their own.  A singing choir can usually perform with three or four altos missing from a group of eighteen, but this is not true in a handbell group.  Each ringer is needed all of the time.

Once the handbell ringers have accepted the fact that they are a vital part of their group and that other members depend on them for their regular attendance and their responsive ringing, what does this begin to do for them as developing musicians?

By being dependent on one another, handbell ringers begin to listen to each other in a very crucial way.  They develop the habit of ringing the entire piece mentally.  They attempt to hear every note in their head and begin to function as an integrated part of the whole composition.  Each bell is rung in relation to the bells that rang previously.  The teamwork that is involved in bringing about a crescendo or an accelerando is tremendous, the musicianship that develops is phenomenal.  A musical handling of passing notes, suspensions and appoggiaturas can be a problem to any group.  They are particularly difficult to execute in handbell ringing.  Again, though, the relationship and responsiveness of one bell ringer to another - under the guidance and encouragement of a sensitive director - is what creates musical handbell ringing.

Chamber music has, through the years, been thought of as the ensemble which demands the most of the individual musician.  The performer must be technically accurate, but more than that, he must be sensitive to the other musicians around him.  Handbell ringing is much the same.  It has been observed that handbell ringers develop more quickly as musicians than do choir members or orchestra members.  In small groups, a person's sense of rhythm is greatly improved and his sensitivity to the subtleties of music is increased.  Obviously, the quality and strength of leadership is a contributing factor.

Perhaps more important than the musical development is their maturation as an individual.  They not only develop a dependence upon others, but develop an awareness that others are depending on them.  It is almost impossible for a bell ringer to remain a part of a group for very long without developing necessary habits of self-discipline.  Handbell ringers must organize their lives to meet and respond to the needs of other handbell ringers.  Long term handbell ringing develops - yes, even demands - great personal self control.  Handbell ringers must become accountable to their director, to their fellow handbell ringers and to themselves.  The nurturing of this kind of growth within an individual is justification enough for any handbell group.

Robert Ivey was graduated from Westminster Choir College with Bachelor and Master of Music degrees. He has served on the board of the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers, Inc. and has conducted handbell festivals and workshops throughout the United States. He is a member of the American Guild of Organists, and a member of the Choristers Guild. He has been a member of the summer staff of the Fred Waring Choral Workshop, the Summer session at Westminster Choir College and a guest lecturer at Westminster Choir College. His handbell arrangements are published by Harold Flammer, Inc., Choristers Guild and Belwin Mills.