Using subs and integrating new permanent ringers

by Josh Fitzgerald

I was recently at the Area Leadership Meeting in Cincinnati. Having been to the meeting several times in the past, I always enjoy seeing familiar faces and learning about new Guild initiatives and functions created by our brilliantly talented staff and national board. At the meeting, groups were asked to design a group name reflecting the individual strengths that they brought to the meeting and to their teams back home. One group reflected on how they had all been called in their church music jobs, volunteer positions (such as serving an Area Board), and their community ensembles to “step up” both in terms of service and performance. Usually, the calling came regardless of the individual’s reluctance or lack of knowledge and skill.

The group created their team name around that concept, but these experiences are similar to how so many have been brought into handbell musicianship. There are countless ways to “step up” in your handbell life, and I encourage you to explore all those ways. But what would it look like if you actually “stepped in” to ring in a community ensemble in your area (assuming you haven’t before)? What if you made a goal to ring in a new or additional ensemble? Could you agree to sub on occasion in another choir simply as a way to improve your own sight-reading ability and serve others? I think all involved would benefit.

While many live in places where there is only one community group, those in larger metropolitan areas often have access to multiple choices. No matter where you are, directors all have a need to replenish their pool of skilled ringers and capable rehearsal substitutes. Who among us has not had an emergency situation in our groups where assignments had to be adjusted weeks or days before a concert? You may think that you only have one professional opportunity available to you, but you may actually have many options to increase and demonstrate your own musicianship by “stepping in and stepping up,” sometimes at the last minute, for someone else in need.

I did an informal survey of community group directors to determine the ways they approach using substitutes and how they integrate new permanent ringers. I was struck by the diversity of answers. Some groups limp along without the use of subs because few capable ones are available. Others do not use them because they cannot quickly enough integrate a sub due to different ringing styles, unusual rehearsal schedules, or their niche types of performance. Some are lucky enough to not need subs due to their large group. While some ensembles do regularly use subs, the message to me was clear: We need more people who are willing to “step in,” and they need to be able to do so in just the right ways. It’s to be expected that directors would like to see skill in terms of rhythmic accuracy, sight-reading ability, good technique, and overall musicianship. However, several reoccurring concepts prove to me that you can “step in” without being the Michael Jordan of handbell ringing.

Fit/Group Dynamic

For both subs and those auditioning for permanent placement, directors want a ringer that fits in personality-wise with the rest of the group. They acknowledged the music directly suffers when ringers could not get along or feel comfortable being open to new ways of movement and unique concepts of performance. Communication and ability to resolve conflict were also keywords continually used.


Directors want all of their ringers to be flexible, but this is especially true for subs. They must be willing to share bells, move positions frequently, take direction quickly and without feeling personally attacked, and adapt to varied ringing styles.

Letting Go

The need is for ringers and subs who could sight-read a piece and not be derailed when mistakes are made. Conductors hope for the discernment that, when a passage or set of notes was too challenging to instantly achieve, musicians make the decision to not play, or not play all of the notes. Having that capacity helps avoid derailing other ringers as well as helps the sub continue on in the piece. In other words, they want folks who could be okay “letting go” of the mistakes for the betterment of the music. These concepts apply not just to their sight-reading, but their interpersonal relationships as well.

Commitment and Attitude

Almost every director wants a potential ringer committed enough to make the group a priority in their schedule, and one that would give his best and most positive “all” to come to rehearsal prepared and on time. They also expect ringers would be team players and not try to be “bell hog divas.” Although it’s no surprise, this was probably the most important criteria mentioned.

I asked directors how they helped new ringers assimilate into their groups more quickly, and how they helped seasoned ringers view the new ringers as part of the group. Their answers may be helpful if you’re struggling with group dynamics: share meals together; do ice breakers and team-building activities despite how much rehearsal time you think you’re using up; go on a retreat which includes not only practice but also group social time. One answer I got multiple times was an idea I simply didn’t associate with integrating a new ringer: go on concert or festival tour. If anyone can endure the hassles of travel and a demanding performance schedule, yet still get along by the end, they are a keeper. So, community directors, when is your group going on tour? I’ve seen groups grow in leaps and bounds simply by taking their music on the road.

Additionally, directors indicated how they tried to see new ringers as a whole person instead of focusing only on the ability to ring challenging music. Directors looked for the determination, the attitude, the willingness to communicate and work with others, and the other non-music skill sets new ringers brought to the group. This is a powerful reminder! The best folks in our groups may not bring the strongest in ringing ability but contribute valuable other skills. Each of us does not give only a single contribution to the group but a sum of all our skills and abilities.

Do you now think you could “step in” as a sub? Could you join a new or additional group with more confidence? If you moved across the country, would you be ready to enter into a new ensemble with a better understanding of what directors want? Could any of these concepts change the way you think about acquiring new ringers and subs? I sure hope so.

Bottom line: Be nice and play nice. Be flexible. Let go of mistakes and conflict for the sake of the music. Be dependable, own your commitments, and have a great attitude. Bring your best, and acknowledge we all have different strengths to contribute which improve our groups. I challenge you to use these standards to find ways to “step in” and “step up” in the coming year.

Josh is originally from Colorado but now lives in the Dallas area where he works for a major airline and operates a small business.  Previously, he was full time in church music, and led a program of 8 handbell ensembles plus additional other theatrical, instrumental, and vocal groups.  He’s been a member of 9 community ensembles in 5 different states, and currently serves the Area 9 Board as Secretary.