What is the biggest issue facing your handbell ministry?

by Sondra Tucker

Crowdsourcing on a topic is a good way to both identify common issues and brainstorm solutions to those problems. Unless you work in a paradise where everyone gets along all the time, money and personnel are plenteous, and everyone is musically competent and always present, you will surely find some company in what follows here. In my many discussions with other handbell musicians, I have found some common issues and comments.

Stay tuned! In the next issue of Overtones, we will identify possible solutions to each of these problems.

Part One: The Church

Scheduling. My personal biggest frustration comes when things are scheduled over our Sunday night rehearsal time. This usually involves several of us in the handbell choir, either needing or wanting to be at the other activity. The handbell choir seems to come last in the hierarchy.

Our problem in a large, multi-ensemble church, is the lack of a schedule planned months in advance so that ringers can have enough time to adjust their schedules accordingly. Some conflicts can’t be rescheduled, but that could be minimized with a long-term plan. We share rehearsal space with the vocal choirs, so we must fully set up and tear down at each rehearsal. Also, when we ring in church, we have to ring from the back balcony, so we have to haul our equipment a long way to set up for church.

Having an non-supportive church staff. They grudgingly let us play because we’re popular with the congregation, but they often make my life difficult by not letting us play as often, nit-picking about the budget, etc. We get around this by contributing our own money and playing gigs elsewhere.

Our pastor doesn’t like the handbell choir. He wants guitar music. He plays guitar, in a strumming, Kum-Bah-Yah style, and thinks it’s great.

Significant attrition in the congregation, compounded by division.

Part Two: Budgeting

Budgets challenge us sometimes. We have enough new music now to get us through another year, so I’m at the point I can buy to play or save until later. But there are things we need and can’t buy unless I pay for them: new foam, covers to use over the foam in rehearsals, new mallets, the bags to transport foam, a few extra notebooks for ensemble, even a few things to decorate our tiny boring space. We are fortunate to have port-a-bell cases, however, which is worth everything. I do pay for almost all the twelve bell music we use, plus I pay for my own expenses when I attend events.

I have four choirs (three vocal, one bell) and the allowance is $700.00 per year. I can hardly keep gloves on their hands. My choirs are small, but fortunately, the members are very loyal.

Part Three: Ringers

We have a good pool of ringers. One is a pianist but a bell rookie, and I’ve pulled in an inexperienced youth and ringers who are mostly subs to play on fairly challenging music. They rise to the occasion, but we rarely play with the same lineup every month. This coming spring my new bass ringer is dropping out after two months’ church membership because the church is “not a good fit” for him after all, and another is unexpectedly taking spring off to help with the youth group where she also teaches Sunday School. Another ringer is a CPA and always takes a hiatus in spring during tax season. A young ringer is helping her family with their mom, who is dying from cancer. We may drop back to 4 octaves this spring for the first time, because I don’t know that I can rally enough to cover the 3s, but we’ll be good if at least one of the extras will stay. I will say that they are good to keep me informed so I can scramble up a plan, and my ringers are on time and diligent about rehearsing and playing. I wouldn’t trade any of them. But when their lives intersect with ours, the handbell choir can be the thing that takes the hit.

One problem is ringers who never improve. Year after year, they hold the group back, with no understanding of that fact. They suffer embarrassing performance mis-rings with nothing more than a shrug and chuckle. After many years the same person is still there. No, he has not improved. Still has no clue.

Ringers who just can’t shut up during rehearsal. Let me rephrase. Ringers who are wholly unaware of the time wasted because of their (often bell-related) talk whenever it’s time to restart a practice session. They’re talking. Do they know where we’re starting? No. Does everyone else have to wait for them? Every. Single. Freaking. Time.

My challenge is having consistent membership. Strategies: mostly I cry.

Our ringers are getting older and there aren’t any younger people to take over.

The challenge in my choir is recruiting non-flaky members who can ring and show up!

Commitment/attendance. My solution at this point is to choose a date to play in worship, set the rehearsal schedule, find out who all is available for the play date and at least all but one rehearsal. Everyone else sits out a set. Then I pick the music. If we’re a full choir, great! If we’re a duet, great! Well, we haven’t down as low as two, but we’ve been consistently around eight.

We have a ringer with a domineering personality who “helps” direct from behind the table and feels free to correct others’ errors. Our director is rather meek and won’t ask her to stop.

Part Four: It’s Not Them, It’s You

The director is holding us back! She misses too many rehearsals. Then she doesn’t know how to direct us when she comes back. We need to encourage her to give up the ghost. We are an excellent choir with very talented, dedicated ringers. Our director begins rehearsals late, waiting on everyone to arrive. Unfortunately, this has just served to teach the ringers that they don’t need to be punctual.

At my church, we can only ring arrangements of hymns that the congregation knows. No original music or a setting of an unfamiliar tune. Our director has a choral background and says that the only way music will be meaningful is if the congregation knows the words to what we are playing.

And this, which doesn’t neatly fit into any of the above categories: Our biggest challenge is finding good quartet/quintet music that fits the level of our group. When SEE was happening, we could always pick up ideas for quartets because we saw them perform. Lots of groups. Now we only have the internet and festival buckets to choose music, and often we can’t see the score or hear the music. I long for an event where quartets/quintets can have their own festival, sponsored by HMA. So there you have it. From finances to logistics, from clergy to ringers and directors, there are plenty of opportunities for problems to arise. How do we deal with these issues in a healthy way for ourselves and our ministries that we love? How do we speak truth in love and maintain high standards for our work? Stay tuned…

Sondra K. Tucker, BSE, MMus, is handbell editor for Jubilate Music Group. She is organist/choirmaster at Church of the Holy Apostles, Episcopal, in Collierville (Memphis), Tennessee, where she plays the organ, directs the musical ensembles of the church, and oversees a concert series. She is also 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.