Engaging, Educating, and Entertaining Your Audience and Musicians
by Diane Cummings Persellin
Just as we need a blueprint, a timeline, and fine building materials when planning to build a lovely new house, we also need a strategy when constructing a satisfying handbell concert. Whereas, the initial reaction of an audience to a handbell performance is universally enthusiastic, maintaining this level of delight and enthusiasm throughout a program is difficult. Ear fatigue with too much similarity of timbre and types of music can set in.
Attending a handbell concert can be like eating too much ice cream in one sitting with too much of the same taste and texture. The ear, like our taste buds, craves contrasts. By including a variety of elements that work well together within a concert, the audience stays engaged, new ringers are attracted to join the ensemble, and the audience leaves the concert satisfied with the rich experience.
As an ensemble director, my most important role before a handbell concert is to select appropriate and engaging repertoire. We now have more resources than ever before to help us find good and interesting compositions to help us design and present engaging, cohesive, and musically satisfying concerts. The longer I teach, the more time this step seems to require. After 35 years of serving as a handbell choir director both in a church and at a university, this task has become more systematic, but perhaps not any easier (Diane Persellin. “The Selection of Repertoire in Music Ensembles”, Guest Editor of Special Focus Issue of Music Educators Journal. July, 2000) .
The purpose of this article is to share the approaches I have developed over the years to deepen audience and performer appreciation of our handbell concerts. My goals for our performances are: 1) to educate both our ringers and our audience, 2) to engage and entertain people, and 3) to enlist new players, audience members, and donors. If you are seeking ways to construct an engaging and memorable concert, I offer 10 steps to consider in your planning.
1. Take stock of the size and strengths of your most important resource: your ringers
List the strengths of your returning ringers. What musical skills do they have? What skills will need to be developed? What level of difficulty will be targeted for most of your music? If most of your pieces will be Level 3, consider programming a few Level 2 pieces for your new ringers to develop their skills. These pieces will also help your returning ensemble members review and strengthen their rusty skills. Then consider a 3+ or 4- piece to challenge and stretch your group. Be sure to factor in how much time you will have to teach the music to your players so they ring with confidence and musicality and so become enjoyable to watch as they make music.
My university ensemble changes considerably from year to year. Some years I will have a strong core of ringers who have either returned to the program for another year or who have rung in excellent church choirs while in high school. I may also have other students with excellent music skills and good coordination who have not previously participated in a handbell ensemble. Other years, graduation has taken its toll and new ringers are accepted into the ensemble. These developing musicians may be musically challenged and only read one clef and or just their line and space on the staff. They will take additional instruction as they have a lot to learn.
While we rehearse twice each week, class conflicts, athletic team travel, class field trips, and off-campus job interviews are also a few of the challenges encountered in an academic handbell ensemble. All of these strengths and challenges must be factored in when first starting to plan a concert.
2. Consider your space – the performance venue
While most of us have a performance venue that is familiar to us, consider performing in new venues, as well. This has the advantage of giving you and the ensemble a fresh perspective with a new space and acoustics and may attract additional audience members. Visit the new venue to analyze acoustics, space, and sight lines to factor into your choice of repertoire.
Performing in either especially resonant or dry halls needs to be considered when choosing repertoire. Some pieces with quick articulations may get muddy if the hall is extremely resonant. In contrast to this, we perform in a large dry hall at Christmas that seats 3000 and was built as a venue for speakers rather than for music. Each player needs to be amplified; bass bell ringers have difficulty hearing the melody played by the treble bells and vice versa if this has not been stressed during rehearsals. On years when we perform in other venues, the acoustics of that hall need to be considered when selecting repertoire and during rehearsals.
If you have always performed in a more formal concert hall or church setting, consider scheduling a concert in a more informal setting. Last spring we presented a cabaret concert with the audience seated around tables so they could enjoy a bite to eat prior to the concert. Audience members and musicians alike enjoyed the performance in a more intimate setting.
A new venue may require that your tables be set up in a new configuration which, can also be a good learning experience for your ensemble. Out-of-door settings provide more unique challenges to assure that handbells are heard and may require an acoustical shell or amplification. Performing the first piece from a balcony can also add to the audience experience, but requires that handbell changes be limited if we don’t have a second set of tables. Antiphonal Fanfare (John F. Wilson, Agape 1211, L3) is a piece that can be performed with one set of bells divided into three small choirs, each performing from a different part of the hall or church with minimal bell changes. Opening with a memorized handbell processional can be a delightful audience pleaser. One of our favorite memorized processionals is Bell Fanfare (David Brown AGEHR MAG3029, L2) which also requires no bell changes. We start on measure 17 with big chords, play to the end, then play the entire 32 measure piece.
3. Pros and cons of concert themes
As you begin to peruse potential music for your concert, a few pieces may rise to the surface calling out for a performance. These pieces may even suggest a theme. Themed concerts either can be highly inspiring or somewhat limiting. A concert theme provides cohesiveness, tells a story, and makes the performance musically satisfying. Successful concert themes include the “Christmas Story”, “Global Music”, “Music of the Stage” which can include music from film and opera, and “Music of the Dance”. However, pieces that are related by a common theme that is too restrictive can sound too similar and not allow for enough variety. In addition, if the theme is too narrow, the task of finding appropriate repertoire that works for both your ensemble and the chosen theme can become much more challenging. Alternatively, should you not want to commit to organizing your concert under one theme, related pieces can be grouped in the program in sections.
4. Determine an opener and a closer
Next, choose concert openers and closers. What piece welcomes your audience and “sets the tone” for the beginning of your concert? Your opening piece does not need to be loud and fast, but should show the strengths of your ensemble and make your audience want to hear more. It should also demonstrate the enthusiasm with which the ringers will perform the remainder of the concert. The concert closer should provide an aesthetic conclusion. An effective closing piece may be fast, loud, and joyous, but may also be a quieter, more reflective composition. Once the final piece has been chosen, determine pieces that will lead up to this closing piece to provide a satisfying conclusion. In between the beginning and end of the concert lies a musical journey.
The Overture from Carmen arranged by Martha Thompson (Shawnee MSPH5079, L4) is an audience favorite and a lively opener for a concert. Sway arranged by Sandra Ethun (Hope MHP2587, L3) with its Latin percussion sets the environment for a rich concert experience. A virtuosic piece such as Tempest by G. Michtom (Laurendale MLAHB1087, L5) is an amazing opener. This Christmas season we are opening a large Christmas concert with Gloria Fanfare by Cathy Moklebust (Jeffers MJHS9520, L3) which is guaranteed to delight our audience. One of the best closers we have played is a rousing march, the All-American Hometown Band, arranged by William Wood (AGEHR MAG45019, L4). An ethereal closing is Linda Lamb’s Celtic Farewell (AGEHR MAG35210, L3-). But no one will forget when we closed a concert with Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven arranged by Ron Mallory (Jeffers MJHS9504, L3+).
5. Program pieces with variety to keep the audience engaged.
To keep audiences and ringers engaged throughout the duration of the concert, select music written in various meters, keys, handbell techniques, and tempos. Conductors should also strive for a variety of genres, nationalities, and solo or accompanying instruments (see number 6). Feature a talented ringer, a duet, or a small ensemble in a handbell solo.
Resources for finding good music are many. YouTube clips can be very insightful. Googling fine handbell ensembles to see their repertoire is also helpful.
6. Include other instruments and voices in your programming
We are fortunate that handbells invite us to use a variety of performance techniques. These techniques can be highly engaging when done expressively. As you are selecting music, list the techniques employed in each piece in a chart so you will be able to determine if you are using a good mix of techniques such as martellato, malleting, and the singing bell while at the same time not over using one technique too much.
Program percussion instruments to accompany a few of your pieces. A good djembe player can add a lot of pizzazz to a few selections on a concert. A guest soloist such as a singer, cellist, or flutist also provides a new timbre. A string bass player can often read the bass line of handbell scores and can offer a firm, rhythmic bass to the ensemble sound. Spirituals such as Joshua Fit da Battle of Jericho arranged by Kevin McChesney (Beckenhorst HB334, L3) with its stride bass line work especially well. Latin music with percussion such as Las Campanas de la Navidad (AGEHR MAG301279AG, L4) arranged by Hart Morris is also very effective.
I make it a priority when constructing a concert to include several instrumentalists or singers as “guest stars” to perform with my ensemble. Examples include Shenandoah arranged by J.D. Frizzell (Red River Music MRRG5008, L4) with soprano soloist and Allegro from Solomon by William Griffin with two oboes, which is a terrific arrangement of the “Entrance of the Queen of Sheba” published by Beckenhorst (MBEHB270 L5). Dona Nobis Pacem by Kevin McChesney (Choristers Guild MCGA1313, L3) with voice and cello is a lovely piece. When the Saints Go Marching In arranged by Arnold Sherman (Red River Music MRRHB0004, L4) with clarinet, trombone, bass and drums is worth the additional time and effort to corral and teach the additional instrumentalists.
7. Determine the program order
Again, work for both variety and cohesiveness. Strive to take listeners on an expedition through many musical landscapes with different hues and terrain. Try to avoid programming two pieces in the same key or in the same tempo key back to back. When selecting music, consider what handbell techniques are used in each piece to avoid over-using any one technique in consecutive pieces. For example, if the opening piece uses a lot of malleted bass bells, try to avoid selecting music that employs that technique again until later in the program. Your chart that you have put together (see number 6) can help determine the order as well as plan rehearsals.
8. Let the list of your selections under review sit for a few days.
This is the gestation stage. Create a playlist of as many recordings or Youtube performances as possible. This allows you to easily return to your concert-planning-in-progress a few days later to assess whether you still like the pieces and the order you have chosen when your ears are fresh. I like to have a few extra pieces with varying levels of difficulty under consideration to maintain some flexibility if plans and schedules change. And when working with students or volunteers, they often do!
9. Determine the order in which the pieces will be taught in the next few months.
For an ensemble with some less experienced ringers, the easiest pieces may need to be taught first while ringers develop skills. Determine how much rehearsal the more difficult pieces will require and plan accordingly. A calendar with specific, targeted goals is a great tool when planning rehearsals over several months. Try not to let any one piece sit too long between rehearsals without refreshing it. Make it a practice to let your ringers know why you are rehearsing pieces in a specific order as it may not be as evident to them.
By assessing the strengths and weaknesses of each ringer at a placement audition and then watching and checking in throughout the year, the ensemble can work together as a team. Some ringers will be more comfortable staying with the same bell assignment throughout the year. Others will relish and need the challenge of moving to a new bell assignment with each new piece. Most college handbell students need to be challenged to ring a variety of parts, but some may not be ready to do that the first semester. When assigning parts throughout the year, I study each piece carefully to determine where the challenging section in the music will be. I then assign my less experienced ringers first to the parts offering the fewest rhythmic challenges and bell changes. The most experienced ringers get assigned next to the parts that need the most expertise and experience. Sectionals with bass or treble bells can be scheduled the first ten minutes of rehearsal and then all other ringers can join (“Handbell Manuscript Color-Coding: Visual Aid or a Crutch?” Overtones. 36, (1) 26-30, 1993).
Decide whether your concert needs verbal commentary between pieces to give ringers a chance to reset their bells. Oftentimes, the director can introduce the next piece and provide context for the audience. Conversely, a good narrator can focus on speaking well rather than on conducting. Narration can include a quote or short reading related to the piece and can also add much to the concert experience.
With careful and creative planning, a handbell concert can be a richly rewarding experience for the audience and for current and future ringers. Just as touring and admiring a new well-built house, people attending a handbell concert will appreciate the planning, attention to detail, variety, skill, beauty, and craftsmanship. They will leave the concert wanting to return again because the musical product was so compelling and satisfying.
Diane Cummings Persellin is professor of music education and director of the Trinity University Handbell Ensemble at Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas, a position she has held for the past 33 years. Prior to that she served as director of handbells and children’s choirs at Valley Presbyterian Church in Scottsdale, Arizona, while pursuing her doctorate in music education at Arizona State University. Dr. Persellin’s handbell ensembles perform with the San Antonio Symphony at their annual Holiday Pops Concerts. Graduates of her program serve as handbell directors and ringers in churches and community ensembles.