by Stevie Berryman
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Lutefisk is a traditional nordic dish made by processing fish with lye over several days until it becomes gelatinous. As it is the only dish I can think of that includes lye in the recipe, it is certainly unique. The lesson of lutefisk is that “unique” is a neutral word, even though most people assume it has positive connotations. It does not. “Unique” is not a synonym for “special” or “appealing,” in either the culinary or music worlds.
Sometimes I fear that because handbells themselves are rather unique in the music world, we believe that alone is enough reason for people to come to our concerts. It’s not. Don’t strive to be unique; be unforgettable.
Take some time at the start of the new season for reflection and evaluation. This is the perfect time to figure out who you are as a group, or perhaps who you want to be. It’s also a great time for some honest assessment of whether or not that identity is what you actually project to your audience. Here are some discussion questions to get you started:
1) Who are you? This is different than “what do you do?”. This answer should reflect your group’s mission. E.g., we are musicians who bring handbell ringing to people who have never heard it before.
2) Never heard of you. Why should I see your show? “Because we ring handbells; we’re unique” is not an answer. Remember, unique is not a positive quality by itself.
3) What’s your favorite song that you’ve played? This question helps the director identify whether this a group that thrives on the challenge of something difficult, or a group that prefers to bask in a confident performance. Both approaches are equally valid.
4) What do you like best about playing bell music? Everyone has their own reasons for joining a bell choir. It’s important that you don’t confuse your individual purpose with the group purpose.
5) What parts of it are meh? Your ability to address some of these issue will directly correlate with your ability to retain ringers long term.
6) In your time with this ensemble, what are you most proud of? There are all sorts of valid answers to this question. What it reveals is what is most personally fulfilling to the individual ringers, be it a stellar performance or some kind of mission/outreach. The red flag is when ringers cannot come up with an answer at all.
Congratulations on surviving December, the Musicians’ Marathon! Reward yourselves by taking some time to reflect on who you are, who you want to be, and the best way to get there.
Stevie Berryman is shockingly good at video games. She can fold a fitted sheet so it looks like it came right out of the package. Likewise, her skills as music director and teacher have also been acquired through long hours of arduous and dedicated practice. For much of her career Stevie has directed seven or more ensembles each week, meaning she has 98 years of experience (in dog years). Her effusive energy and wild creativity found a perfect setting in 2013 when she became the Artistic Director of the Houston Chamber Ringers, which has let her smash together her love for music, laughter, and tacos in a truly remarkable way. She has a particular passion for teaching children how to ring, and her innovative methods have made her a sought after educator at area and national handbell festivals, although she still puts her handbell gloves on one leg at a time. Stevie loves helping other choirs as a private clinician, or planning epic concerts for them as a creative consultant, although she can be found occasionally at her actual job as Director of Handbells and Children’s Music at Kinsmen Lutheran Church in Houston.