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Traveling with Handbells, Chimes, and Tons of Stuff While Staying Sane
By: Keith Cole, Tour Host with Witte Performance Tours
May of 2013 found approximately 38 persons from across the USA, Canada, Puerto Rico and Hong Kong traveling and concertizing throughout Israel. It was such a success that Debbie Rice, Artistic Director and Conductor, and Keith Cole, Tour Host with Witte Performance Tours, decided to do it again, but this time to the countries of Finland and Estonia. Using this upcoming festival planning as an example, I will share some ideas about traveling as a handbell ensemble.
One of the first questions handbell conductors need to ask themselves is: “Why do I want to travel with my ensemble?” Additionally: “What goals do we hope to meet with this tour?” Answers to both of these questions will guide you when designing a tour and recruiting for that event.
Whether a handbell ensemble is traveling domestically or internationally, one can expect a unique experience! Not only will they find joy in making music together, but they will be sharing their unique art form and gift with many who have not before experienced handbell music. While there will be the added expense of traveling with handbells and associated equipment,1 as well as possible challenges of loading and unloading into unique concert venues, the rewards of an excited and curious audience will make it all worthwhile. An example of this from the upcoming Finland/Estonia Festival is that the concert in Tallinn is at the Niguliste Kirrko, a former Baroque church that is now one of Estonia’s national museums. The church is located in the middle of the old walled town of Tallinn, surrounded by narrow streets that are impossible for a coach to traverse. Because of this, handbells, tables and other equipment will need to be transferred to the church via taxis or small vans.
If you have traveled as part of a group tour before, you have some idea of what to expect from the touring part. Touring with a handbell ensemble offers similar encounters, but also many unforgettable and one-of-a kind experiences in meaningful and inspiring venues and spaces. Using the above mentioned venue as an example, the church will be closed for rehearsal to all but the festival ringers, so it will offer a rare opportunity to view many famous works of art in private and at one’s own pace (when not rehearsing!).
Other obvious differences between traveling with a “normal” tour group (or even on your own), include:
1. Traveling with one’s handbell equipment. Depending on the size of the group, equipment can be stored and carried under the coach, on the coach, or transported with an attached trailer or separate truck. For Finland and Estonia we will be using an empty van to carry all of the instruments and equipment.
2. Extra time for setup, rehearsal and tear down. It takes time to unload the equipment, set it up, work out logistics, perform the concert and then tear down and load up again. Thank goodness most handbell ringers are experts at this!
3. Travel with a purpose. This type of travel definitely has a purpose: primarily, that of like-minded people doing like-minded things together. The nature of the event forces one to let go of some personal agendas for the greater good.
Additional items to think about when planning a handbell tour:
1. Mode of transportation. Will your destination require flying or will it be drivable? Obviously, if you are traveling overseas, driving is not an option! Flying with your handbells is totally doable, but there are several things one must keep in mind, particularly when it comes to budgeting for extra pieces of luggage and overweight luggage.
2. Venues and space. One of the most important and exciting aspects of a handbell tour is where the group is going to perform. In addition to an excellent acoustic, the floor space needed to set up handbell tables is all-important. In the case of the Finland/Estonia festival, we will need minimum space for one 5-octave set and three 3-octave sets of handbells. This translates into 108 feet of table space needed in each venue. While we can be creative with formation, we still need the space. Additionally, we will have at least two local choirs joining the festival choir at each concert, so additional space will be needed for them. It will be a joyous explosion of sound, but the space will still be needed for all of the handbells … and the audience! This issue of space dictates where one can play these concerts. I was recently in Finland and Estonia viewing possible venues, and I’m sure some thought me quite curious as I wandered about churches and concert halls with my tape measure in hand.
3. Repertoire. What you play and how you play it is really the primary goal for each group. When choosing rep for a concert tour, be it choral or handbell, it is important to keep a few questions in mind:
a. What do we play really well? This usually translates to: “What do we love to play?”
b. What music do we want to share with our audience? Who is our audience?
c. What music/traditions of our country(ies) do we want to share with our audience? For the Finland/Estonia tour, we have players from Canada, USA, Puerto Rico and Switzerland. Additionally, we have Finnish and Estonian ringers, so our program will reflect a piece from each of these six traditions.
d. Other considerations: techniques to be used, composers to be highlighted, season of the year, etc.
4. Publicity. How are you going to publicize your concert so folks will come? Posters and flyers are fantastic tools. Radio spots and video clips for cable or TV are expensive, but sometimes one can get a freebie from a local station. One thing that has worked well for my groups has been to give my ringers flyers inviting folks to a concert that they then distribute when walking through a city. Another thought is to hire someone to do this for you.
5. Number of travelers. While most handbell choirs consist of 12 to 15 ringers, the adage “the more, the merrier” rings true for pricing at tour. Think of it this way: the more people traveling, regardless of whether they are performing or not, the less expensive the tour (per person) will be. Also, everyone needs “groupies,” those loving souls who enjoy tagging along with their musician friends—and who can also double as applause starters, purse/backpack keepers, and photographers.
This certainly is not an exhaustive list of “do’s and dont’s” for traveling with handbells, but hopefully this will get you thinking about travel possibilities with your ensemble and also relieve any anxieties about doing so. There are many possible and exciting destinations with welcoming audiences and fantastic venues available for handbell choirs, all around this world of ours. Join the many of us who do this on a regular basis: you will be rewarded many times over.
1. Witte Performance Tours has tables, foam, and cloths that can be used for tours to Europe.
2. Malmark and Witte Perfomance Tours are working together to provide handbells for groups traveling overseas if a group does not want to take its own handbells.
I want to take a moment of personal privilege to thank Jeffers Handbell Supply for their support and help in getting out the word about both the Israel Festival and the upcoming Finland/Estonia Festival. Many of you received postcards announcing these festivals in packets of music you ordered—and both Debbie Rice and Witte Performance Tours appreciate Jeffers for including this card in its mailings. Thank you, Jeffers Handbell Supply!