Creation of the National Honors Handbell Ensemble
by Neesa Hart
Many big ideas start out as a sketch on the back of a scrap of paper. The big idea that became The 2016 National Honors Handbell Ensemble started on a Sonic receipt. Phillip Lanier, the musical director of the Stafford Regional Handbell Society, and I were sitting in a car having unpacked gear from Pinnacle. Our advanced student ensemble, Ring It!, had successfully performed in Dallas, and we were just finishing the debriefing when I mentioned how much our students had enjoyed seeing and hearing other handbell ensembles perform.
That is one of the opportunities lacking in our youth ringing program—our kids rarely have the chance to enjoy handbell concerts outside of their own church or our ringing program. I believe that is true for many youth ringers. So that very thing that many of us say we enjoy the most about making music with handbells—the sense of family and camaraderie and unity—is not something our young people often experience. Few youth handbell ringers are fortunate enough to transition into college ensembles. So how do we get them to keep bells in their hands and encourage and inspire them to ring and direct in the years to come? I know so many musicians who speak of all-state choirs and district band experiences as the catalysts that made them decide to study and pursue vocational music. I know no handbell musicians who say this of handbell ringing opportunities they experienced in their youth—you may be out there, but you’ve never said to me, “It was the state handbell festival that made me think, ‘Yeah, I want to do this for the rest of my life.’” There is something about being in a room with like-minded peers, striving for excellence, that creates a larger view of the world and what can be artistically accomplished. There is something about having someone you look up to, someone you deeply respect leading you on that journey to artistic realization that turns a light on and suddenly makes the impossible seem possible. I dream of the day one of my youth ringers calls me from parts unknown and says, “I want to start a children’s ringing program in my area. Can you help me?” YES! Yes, yes. I can and I will, and now I can retire because what I set out to do is done. And so how, I wonder, do we get them there?
And then I made the statement that has been known to make grown men and women shrivel with fear: “You know, what we could do…” And BOOM! Out comes the Sonic receipt, and the list begins. And then, thank goodness for Phillip, who sensibly and methodically wrote notes on that Sonic receipt, because I was headed straight for the open sea on my way to the New World in a row boat with a couple of crates of peanut butter crackers and a Route 44 Diet Limeade.
“What we could do” is select 25-30 really great—I mean, really, really great—handbell musicians age 13-19 through audition, give them very difficult repertoire, tell them to learn it on their own, get a world-class director to work with them, and then let them perform a concert. So we did. With no guarantee of success, no guarantee we could find musicians who could and would want to participate, no guarantee that the vision of a concert of that magnitude could be pulled off in three days of rehearsal, not even a guarantee that we could find anyone who would want to tackle this with us, we launched a website and a project on literally a wing, a prayer, and a thread of hope. What happened exceeded our wildest expectations.
The first consideration was where we would find a director willing to do this. It’s brutal. Because of school schedules, the students have to rehearse on a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and perform on Sunday afternoon. So it’s like taking Distinctly Bronze or Virtuoso and cramming it into two and a half days. Saturday rehearsals ran from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. We had met Kevin McChesney in Dallas, and I was immediately impressed by his generosity of spirit toward Ring It! Plus, the breadth of his repertoire and experience means most youth ringers—especially very advanced youth ringers—know his work and his name and would be excited about working with him. Any director of a youth ensemble will tell you, bass ostinatos are often the thrill of the ringing season. I know for my students, a mixed meter bass ostinato is a guaranteed hit—and they are fans of his work. It seemed a natural fit to us. So I somewhat anxiously sent the email—hey, what do you think of—and we received a very enthusiastic “yes,” which was simultaneously satisfying and terrifying. It was time to ditch the Sonic receipt for a real, bona fide notebook. We needed a concert venue. And a website. And an audition packet. And a way to get the word out. And transportation for the musicians. And hotel arrangements. And meals. And equipment. What have I done?
Like the cavalry in the 11th hour, in stepped the Raleigh Ringers with their usual generosity of just about anything they’ve ever done, dreamed of, tried, or accomplished. They provided us with all the materials they developed for their Virtuoso event—an event for incredibly talented and gifted adult ringers who gather for a weekend with William Payn and perform amazing music with amazing skill and musicianship. What we were envisioning for the National Honors Ensemble was a little like Distinctly Bronze and a lot like Virtuoso. So this was a huge help, and we will never be able to thank them enough for their contribution to the effort.
Jumping off of their excellent organizational strategy, we put together an application, a participant contract and a series of audition exercises for applicants to perform via video. These exercises were challenging, to say the least, but needed to be to find the high caliber musicians we wanted. Repertoire had been selected, and to accomplish 10 pieces in a weekend—most of them very musically challenging—excellence in technique, musicianship, work ethic, enthusiasm, and determination would be absolutely required.
We sent word via Facebook, Twitter and email to every director we could find by searching Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube for “youth handbells; academy handbells; high school handbells,” and so forth. Many of the people we contacted spread the word among friends and family. Then, teen musicians from across the country submitted applications and video auditions. We had an initial pool of 42, any of whom could have held their own in most advanced level ensembles. The selection committee—composed of three adult ringers from other states and two of our own advanced musicians—reviewed and re-reviewed and cordially negotiated, and finally narrowed the pool to 28 musicians. They represented 15 states. Notices went out, contracts and deposits came back, music was ordered and shipped. And the real work began.
We were fortunate to own most of the equipment we needed. Because of our broad children and youth ringing program and unbelievably strong support from our Society members, we have a very large inventory of bells and chimes. We were short only nine aluminum 2s from having the necessary set up. The Ensemble performed on a 6-octave set of chimes, a 5-octave set of chimes, a 5-octave set of bells, and a 7-octave set of bells. The James River Ringers, a community group 60 miles to our south, generously offered the loan of their aluminum 2s, bringing our need down to four bells, which we were able to rent from Malmark. Logistics were also made easier—and harder—by having our own permanent rehearsal space. Somehow, we made all those musicians, and all those bells and chimes and tables and pads and mallets and music stands fit into the performance theater before Kevin arrived on Thursday night, ready to begin relentlessly pushing for every last ounce of energy and musicianship. For the next two days, musicians and director worked and worked and pored over every note and every phrase and every rhythm pattern. Together they pushed and pulled each exquisite moment from the pages. As they played and worked together, ate together and laughed together, taped each other’s blisters, turned each other’s pages and encouraged each other’s efforts, they became a group, then an ensemble, and, eventually, as Kevin would say, a tribe. Beautiful musicianship emerged from sheer spirit, tenacity, skill, and willingness.
Bells were packed and loaded at 10 p.m. on Saturday night after a grueling 12-hour rehearsal. At 5:30 am, the performance venue was prepared, which included striking the wedding reception from the night before. Musicians arrived ready to work and finalize preparation before their performance. In their final hours of rehearsal, they had to overcome the distractions of chairs being set and tables being struck and all the activity buzzing around them to hone in and become what they were meant to be—what we all dreamed they could be—a professional quality handbell ensemble performing with professional quality musicianship that just happened to be made up of 13- to 19-year-old musicians. We started this journey with an expectation that they would do the work. And a hope that they would transcend that expectation and become a greater whole than the sum of its parts.
And they did. And I will say, “it was glorious.” Every little part of it. So glorious that even in the post-event fatigue of Monday morning, we were talking about next year’s repertoire. I found myself digging for a Sonic receipt in my car to make notes on the way to the airport. We are so proud of all that these young musicians accomplished and are eager to see where next year’s Honors Ensemble will take us in April 2017. Repertoire has been finalized, and plans are now in the works to add everything from special lighting effects to whistling to formal attire for the second annual performance. It’s a concert event not to be missed if you are able to make the trip.
The National Honors Handbell Ensemble will assemble, work, and perform with Kevin McChesney April 28-30 in Fredericksburg, Virginia. If you are, or know, a youth handbell musician with great skills and a willing spirit, please encourage them to audition. If you are anywhere near the area, please plan to attend the concert on April 30 at 4 p.m. in the Washington Pavilion in Fredericksburg. It’s well worth the trip.
Information will be available soon at www.nationalhonorshandbellensemble.com. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to the mailing list. Links to the concert performances on YouTube can be found on the National Honors Handbell Ensemble facebook page.
Neesa Hart is the programming director for the Stafford Regional Handbell Society. She and Phillip Lanier, the Society’s musical director, direct and perform with nine different handbell ensembles as part of the Society’s expansive handbell education program. She is currently lobbying the Sonic in Stafford, Virginia, for a historical marker: birthplace of the National Honors Handbell Ensemble. They can be reached at the Society’s webpage – www.staffordregionalhandbellsociety.org