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National Honors Handbell Ensemble

April 2016 is an exciting month if you're a teenage handbell ringer. Stafford Regional Handbell Society in Frederickburg, VA is hosting the very first National Honors Handbell Ensemble specifically for advanced ringers between the ages of 13 and 19. Attendees at Pinnacle 2015 were treated to a showcase concert by the SRHS premier youth ensemble, Ring It!, under the direction of Neesa Hart. It was this group that inspired the idea of a national ensemble.


In Neesa's words: This past summer, our premier student ensemble participated in Distinctly Teen. It was a great experience for them, and opened their eyes to so much more the instrument has to offer. They really benefited from the exposure to other groups, other musicians, and a different director. I am very grateful to Nick Hanson for his excellent leadership of the group.


It also inspired us to resurrect a conversation we'd been having off and on for several years about a youth ringing event that gives outstanding teen musicians an opportunity to really grow musically beyond, perhaps, what even they thought was possible. To do that, we strongly felt that advanced youth ringers would need the opportunity to transcend their own ensembles. In every ringing ensemble, there are more experienced and less experienced musicians. The goal of the National Honors Handbell Ensemble is to identify the very strongest youth handbell musicians in America and bring them together for a weekend of rehearsals resulting in an astounding performance worthy of any advanced ensemble -- youth or otherwise.


Planners looked at other events for advanced musicians and used ideas from both Raleigh Ringers' Virtuoso and Handbell Musicians of Americas' Distinctly Bronze to create an event that would meet their goals. Features that are common to both of those events and ones that are being incorporated into the National Honors Handbell Ensemble are that individual ringers send in audition “tapes”; if they are chosen for the ensemble, they are assigned a position in advance and are expected to learn the music before arriving for rehearsals; music is chosen from the highest level available for ringers, so that participants are challenged to push their limits of knowledge and technique; and rehearsals and the final performance are led by a world-class conductor.


From the Virtuoso model, planners decided to have a smaller ensemble, with a maximum of 30 ringers, and a more formal final performance. From the Distinctly Bronze model, planners have chosen to provide each participant with an individual evaluation which critiques their preparedness, rehearsal etiquette, work ethic, musicianship, artistry and performance as part of an ensemble. Honors band and choral models also played a part in the planning, as many youth handbell ringers are familiar with the concept of an honors ensemble and the expectations that come with being selected to participate in an honors ensemble.


For this inaugural event, the National Honors Handbell Ensemble will be held April 22-24, the conductor is Kevin McChesney and the final performance will be in the Washington Pavillion in Fredericksburg, VA. If you are in the area, make plans to attend and support these talented musicians. If you aren't able to attend, stay tuned … we plan to follow up on this story in an upcoming eVibes after the event has concluded.