I am not by any means a master gardener. But every spring, I get excited when my local nursery begins to display their colorful annuals and perennials for sale. I shop for old favorites like geraniums and sweet-smelling marigolds, and add new varieties that are different and beautiful. I fill my car with what I hope will be hardy plants that will grow and blossom, making my yard more beautiful, and I carefully plant, fertilize and water them throughout the summer.
Handbell choirs can be like that, too. Each new season brings an opportunity to greet old friends and integrate new ringers into your ministry. Providing the right mix of instruction, inspiration, and music can make your handbell ministry flourish and become an integral part of your church’s music ministry, both within your congregation and out in the community.
What are some essential steps to grow a handbell ministry?
- Honor the time and gifts of your volunteers in music ministry by being prepared, punctual, enthusiastic, and on task as their director. Create a rehearsal plan and know what you want to accomplish for each piece you rehearse. Communicate your goals clearly to the ensemble. Expect regular attendance, punctuality, attention, and willingness to work on details from each of your ringers. Walk that tightrope between worship needs and ringer availability to schedule ringing in worship. Since it is so difficult to rehearse with missing personnel, I highly recommend maintaining a sub list, so that occasional absences are less of a problem.
- Meet your ringers where they are, not where you want them to be. This means selecting music that is within your ensemble’s ability to prepare and ring successfully. Music that is too easy can be boring. Music that is too difficult can be frustrating. Just as important is allowing enough rehearsal time to adequately prepare the music you have selected. Within the range of music in your folder, make sure to provide a variety of styles, with enough ease for working on nuance or specialized techniques, and enough challenges to provide opportunities for growth.
- Find plentiful opportunities in worship for ringers to be successful and which complement and enhance the worship service. Since for most groups, handbells have to be moved and set up within the worship space each time they ring in church, it makes sense to play more than just a prelude or offertory. Resources abound for processionals, peals, and accompaniments to enhance the entire service.
- Find opportunities for children and youth to use handbells, both in worship and in Sunday school. Music for children is usually graded Level 1, and is for two or three octaves of handbells. Remember: a C4 in the hands of a 9 year old is proportionally the same as a C3 to an adult!
- Provide good music –
- which is at an appropriate difficulty level
- You can find explanations of the Handbell Difficulty Level system (rated from 1 (easiest) to 6 (most difficult) at http://handbellmusicians.org/music-resources/agehr-music-2/notation-guide/
- which is written for the size bell choir you have (2 octaves to 6 or more octaves).
- Most published music is written in 2-3 octave or 3-5+ octave versions. It takes 7 people to ring two octaves, 11 to ring 3 octaves, 12 to ring 4 octaves, and 13 to ring 5 octaves, although experienced ensembles can sometimes get by with fewer folks.
- which is well crafted and interesting, with creative and emotional impact. I am quite proud of our Alfred Handbell catalog, which contains music written by leading composers and arrangers in our art form, and which ranges from very easy to quite difficult, and for all sizes of ensembles.
- which fits the worship style of your congregation. Our reproducible handbell collection Bells & Chimes for Special Times provides wonderful music for each season of the church year.
- which combines music for bells and choir, and bells with other instruments.
- Many possibilities abound! For example, Joe Martin and Tina English’s Ring the Christmas Bells is written for SATB with a part for 2 octave handbells.
- Many of our handbell anthems contain parts for other instruments. One example is All Praise and Glory which is a majestic upper level handbell anthem with an optional part for organ.
- Offer opportunities to grow skills. Attend your local or area festivals, director’s seminars, and national events. Handbell Musicians of America is an active organization, and provides a national event each year (the next one will be in July 2019 in St. Louis!), opportunities for advanced ringers to come together, and events in each of 12 regional areas. Find them at http://www.handbellmusicians.org and join! HMA offers affordable Ringer Memberships as well! Watch fabulous groups from around the world on YouTube. Support your local community handbell ensemble, and attend live concerts whenever possible.
- Remember that musical ministries in the church exist to support the worship of the larger congregation, but also exist as small groups, and the bonds between members of a bell choir can become precious and long-lasting. Empower everyone in your group to minister to one another.
If you “plant” your handbell ministry in the right soil, with the tender care and encouragement, you will reap the rewards of a vibrant musical garden. Enjoy!
Sondra Tucker, BSE, MMus is Handbell Editor for Alfred Handbell, a division of Jubilate Music Group. She is a retired Organist/Choirmaster and Chair of Area 6 of Handbell Musicians of America, and teaches composition at the Master Series of classes sponsored by the Guild. She is in demand as a conductor and clinician for denominational and Guild events. Sondra is an accomplished organist and flutist, and her published works include music for choir, organ, and instrumental ensembles in addition to handbells. She lives in Memphis with her husband, and has two children and two granddaughters.