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Home > Articles > Summer 2005: The Road to Success- Part One

Summer 2005: The Road to Success- Part One
Kevin McChesney

There are two roads to a successful handbell program. These are choosing music well and assigning. This article will give some ideas on choosing music - we’ll talk about assigning next time.

Today’s director’s are bombarded with promotional material from publishers. There are thousands upon thousands of pieces out there to choose from. Choosing music for your group is a big job.

A great deal of music is chosen in people’s cars. A CD is convenient, and it is simple to pop it in the car’s player as you head to the grocery store or to pick up the kids. Then something strikes you, you make a note of it, and that’s what your group ends up playing. If your group is lucky, you at least took the extra step of looking up the difficulty level, but even then, this is far from what’s required.

There is great value to listening to the promotional recordings when selecting music. But that is just the first step, the step that separates the favorites from the pieces that you don’t want to play.

Next it’s time for some score study. Beyond checking the difficulty level, look over the score for technically challenging spots. Get an overview of the difficulty of the individual parts (particularly the bass). Find the musical challenges that will take rehearsal time like tempo changes, ritards, expressive devices, and so on. Are chimes used? That will take some rehearsing to work out. Make decisions about the manageability of the tempo. And don’t just listen to a piece once - you want to select music that you feel your group will relate well to, and that will reach your congregation or audience.

The most common shortcoming in choosing music is to choose music that is too difficult. There is certainly nothing wrong with presenting difficult music. But it is important to understand that difficult music takes more rehearsal time. WAY too much challenging music is presented with WAY too few rehearsals.

Here are some general guidelines for choosing music:

1) There is nothing wrong with doing simple music well. In fact, go out of your way to program pieces that are technically simple for your group so that you can focus rehearsal time on musicianship and presentation.
Listen through pieces more than once and spend some time in score study as described above. Successful handbell programs play music that suits their group and their listeners well.
3) The AGEHR level designations are valuable guidelines, but they are only guidelines. With some study, you will find that some Level 2 pieces are quite challenging and some Level 4 pieces are quite approachable.
4) Stretch the group and help its growth by programming challenges. The rule here is simply to be careful not to stretch too much all at one time. The top groups in the handbell world became the top groups by moving ahead step by step.
5) Choose music for the group you have, not the one you wish you had. For instance, because of turnover in the group you may have to tone down the challenges for a while. This is not a step backwards, it is choosing music intelligently.
6) Good music is good music (“good music” being defined as music that works well for your group). If you own 5 octaves, you also own 3 or even 2. Don’t rule out music simply because it doesn’t use all the bells you own, especially since there may well be occasions when you have ringers missing during the course of the year.
7) New is not necessarily better. (Of course, sometimes it is!) It is often a good idea to repeat something the group has played before. This is good for confidence and strength in the overall program.

Time spent choosing music intelligently and with careful consideration is time spent guaranteeing a handbell program that will present music with strong communication, musicianship, and confidence.