How to break a Guinness World Record

by Jennifer Cauhorn

On November 19, in Bloomington, Minnesota, 664 handbell musicians gathered at the Mall of America to set a new world record for the largest handbell ensemble. This was the culmination of four months of work in partnership with the Salvation Army and the Mall of America. It all began with a phone call in early July as we were making final preparations for National Seminar in Rochester, New York. The Salvation Army North and Mall of America were working together to create a spectacular event for the kick-off of the annual Salvation Army Red Kettle Campaign. Their plan was to break the Guinness World Record for the largest handbell ensemble at the Mall.

The Mall of America team had been involved in several other world record attempts, so they already knew the process to follow. What they didn’t have was a way to recruit and organize the musicians required. They had done their research and found that a record already existed, set in Japan in 2013 by a group of 564 ringers. Based on this, they set a goal of a minimum of 600 musicians.

Many people wondered why our own festivals and events, which have hosted well above this number, were not considered the world record. None of these events were adjudicated or certified by Guinness World Records (GWR). GWR has exacting criteria and requirements for achieving a world record. They also charge a considerable fee for certifying any record attempt (a fee that is well outside the budget of our events). In this case, the Mall of America was willing to cover these costs.

After reviewing the long list of criteria set by GWR and discussing the goals for the event with the Salvation Army, we agreed that Handbell Musicians of America would become a third partner on this record attempt. Our work started immediately.

Step 1: Music

The GWR criteria require that participating musicians in the record attempt play a recognizable piece of music for a minimum of five minutes. The criteria also state that “if a non-classical piece is to be played, it must be re-scored for the performance.”

The Salvation Army requested that we perform either “Silver Bells” or “Carol of the Bells.” To ensure that the performance met the stated requirements, we agreed that the wisest choice would be to commission a new arrangement of both tunes specifically for this performance. Hart Morris was at the top of a short list of composers/arrangers who we knew would be able to write a good arrangement on short notice with a tight time-frame. Thankfully, he quickly agreed to our request.

Because “Silver Bells” is not in the public domain, we also had to get special permission from the copyright owner to arrange and perform this piece. Music editor John Behnke started that process and was able to secure a license for this purpose.

Step 2: The Planning Team

Before we could start recruiting, we needed to put a team in place and develop a basic plan for achieving the end result. The call to participate came as we were preparing for National Seminar, so a natural next step was calling on members of the National Seminar planning committee to assist in the planning for this event.

KC Congdon, Wendy Ransom, and Margi Zearley all agreed to give even more of their time and volunteered to assist executive director Jennifer Cauhorn in planning and executing the event. We spent time after hours at National Seminar in Rochester, New York, developing an outline and plan for the event.

Step 3: Recruit the Musicians

We announced our role in the world record attempt during the opening banquet at National Seminar to start building excitement right away. After we worked through more details with the Salvation Army and Mall of America, including coming up with a name for this event, we opened registration to all interested handbell musicians.

We pushed The Big Ring through E-Notes, Overtones, and social media. We paid for boosted posts in Facebook to put the event in the news feeds of musicians around the world. Registrations slowly started coming in as excitement for the event continued to build. Finally, in early October, we reached our minimum goal of 600 registrants. Just one week later, we hit our limit at 700.

Step 4: Assign Parts and Distribute Music

Hart Morris delivered the completed arrangement before September 1. He added the placeholder title of “Silver Carol,” and we decided to keep it. Once we received the arrangement, KC Congdon and Jenny Cauhorn started reviewing the music and developing assignment options to fit a variety of handbell set sizes. The key was to create assignments that kept all participants as active as possible throughout the song and covered all the notes while also giving each person no more than two bells (other than upper treble which were assigned for 4-in-hand playing for those with that skill set). The performance space at the event would not allow for tables and music stands, so non-traditional assignments were required, as was the need to memorize the music.

We started sending assignments to full choirs attending as a group in early October along with a link to download a PDF of the music. Assignments for those attending as individuals were sent about a week later as that process required a little more time to complete.

Step 5: Rehearsal and Memorization

Once assignments were sent, we created a Facebook group for the performers so they could share rehearsal plans and memorization tips. We also provided a Finale-created mp3 file of the arrangement for musicians to use in their preparations. The Facebook group was active with over 300 members joining. Members of the group used the space to organize group rehearsals, share stories about the memorization process, look for roommates, and just share where they were all coming from to participate. Big group rehearsals were planned in the Minneapolis area with great results.

Step 6: Equipment and Volunteers

While we told those traveling from out-of-town to plan on bringing their own bells, we wanted to try to provide as much equipment as possible from local sources. In addition, we knew we would need a strong team of volunteers on site the day of the event to keep things running smoothly. Karen Van Wert, Area 7 Chair, and others from the Area 7 board stepped up to help us secure both. Step 7: Organizing the Group

How do you organize 700 handbell musicians for a 5-minute performance while making sure all the Guinness World Record criteria are met? First, you have to be familiar with the space you’ll be using. To that end, Jenny Cauhorn met representatives at the Mall of America and Salvation Army while in Minneapolis for a meeting of the national board. During that meeting, decisions were made about where the group would stage and what path musicians would follow to get to the performance. The idea to process while ringing a C-major peal was also presented and finalized.

With the site visit done, we finalized all the other details for the event. We sent emails to registered choirs to confirm the numbers attending, bell assignments, and the number of handbells they were bringing. We combined registered individuals and partial groups into choirs and gave them holiday-themed names. Other individuals were placed into open slots in registered choirs. We determined our final equipment needs and assigned loaned sets to our newly formed choirs.

Next, we assigned the registered choirs and ad-hoc choirs into zones of approximately 50 musicians per zone. Zones were numbered in the order that they would process into the performance space. This was a key step in meeting the GWR requirements. During the performance, moderators must observe groups of 50 musicians to ensure all in their group are fully participating in the record attempt. Our zone set-up made this criterion much easier to achieve. In addition, to make the borrowed equipment easier to manage, we ensured bell sets provided by the same church, organization, or individual were assigned to groups in the same zone. Also, we placed the larger bell sets (those with the big bass bells) toward the front of the group to make sure they were not under the second level of the Mall in the rotunda. This way the sound of those bass bells would carry better.

Once all these last details were in place, we created a special page on our website with all the details of when and where to arrive, what to wear, the schedule for the day, etc. Emails were sent to all participants directing them to this page for information. We also posted in the Facebook group, encouraging everyone to check their email for important messages.

Step 8: PR & Marketing

While we were finalizing all the operational details and event logistics, teams from the Mall of America and Salvation Army were working on getting the word out to the general public about the event. They contacted local media and arranged for services that would push footage from the event up to the national news wire, making coverage available to any media outlets that wanted to air it. They developed social media strategy and created pre-set posts that would automatically show up in the news feeds of any participants who signed up.

They arranged for advance stories with Minneapolis-based news outlets and sent a photographer and reporter to one of the big group rehearsals in the area. They contacted and pitched stories to regional media located in the cities represented by registered musicians for the event.

Step 9: The Giant Video Screen

A feature of the rotunda in the Mall of America is the giant video wall that continuously shows a variety of ads, special offers, news, and other tidbits. We knew from the beginning that it would play a major role in the event. The exact role wasn’t finalized until the site visit in late October.

Once we saw the performance space and its orientation to the video wall, we confirmed with the Mall of America that we would project the music on the screens. In addition, we were given the opportunity to provide slides with information about Handbell Musicians of America and the services and benefits we offer. Publications director JR Smith put together some beautiful slides for us, including our message and the music being performed that morning. These slides were incorporated into a larger show that included information about the Salvation Army and their Red Kettle campaign. The video wall became the focal point of all the activities of the day.

Step 10: The Big Ring

As the day approached, a blizzard threatened the Midwest with a projected path right through North Dakota and Minnesota. We monitored its progress and prayed it wouldn’t hinder the hundreds of ringers traveling to the Mall of America. We heard from many who changed plans to start their journey earlier to allow extra time to make it through the snow.

The planning committee started arriving in Minneapolis the Thursday before the event to check final details. Hart Morris flew in the day before so he could conduct the event. Lee Afdahl was on standby to provide additional conducting support. The Bells of Lakes were ready to offer a post-event concert and a team of Area 7 musicians prepared 12-bell music to play before the event.

Before arriving in Minneapolis, we learned that space identified on the October site visit as our staging area was not available, having been booked for another event. We reworked our check-in and staging plan the Friday before the event. (While walking through the newly identified space, we learned that we were bumped from the original spot by a Norwegian reality show that was holding a casting call. Yes, you read that correctly.)

The Salvation Army arranged for donuts for all the musicians, and the Mall of America provided coffee and coupon books for everyone. The House of Comedy was our new “green room” and storage area where handbell cases and personal items would be held during the rehearsal and the performance.

Everyone started arriving by 7:30 AM. Due to more GWR requirements, we had to check in each performer individually so we could verify numbers. As performers checked in, they were given their zone number and choir assignment (for individual registrants). After check-in, musicians headed to the House of Comedy to leave cases, coats, and other personal items, and then to our new staging area–one of the long entry hallways on the fourth level of the Mall. Earlier that morning, the planning committee had placed zone signs around the area to show performers where they should gather for the procession.

At 8:45 AM, each member of the planning committee (assisted by Hart Morris) moved through the zones and reviewed the peal and processional process with everyone. We started ringing and processed down to the Rotunda for a dry-run rehearsal. It sounded great! The video screen music was perfect and everything worked perfectly.

Rehearsal done, everyone reversed their path and returned to the staging area and House of Comedy to relax, eat donuts, and drink some coffee.

During this brief down time for the musicians, the planning committee verified the numbers. We had six sets of the check-in list and had to quickly consolidate that into one master list to get a final count of checked-in musicians. We knew the weather had prevented some from getting there, but we weren’t sure how much of an impact that would have. Also, we had cancellations and additions to the group happening up until the night before the event.

To make sure we could complete this task as quickly as possible, the amazing volunteers from the Salvation Army formed a human barrier around us, fielding questions and keeping us insulated so we could focus on our count. Finally, at 10:15, we had it done. A total of 664 performers had checked in.

We still had a few steps to complete in the criteria list from Guinness World Records. All musicians returned to their zones in the staging area and our volunteers and event moderators starting putting wristbands on all performers.

Jenny Cauhorn and Hart Morris returned to the Rotunda to confirm everything was ready to go and to stand for a couple of interviews with on-site media.

Once everyone had a wristband, the musicians moved into place at the top of the down escalator on the fourth level of the Mall. Jenny gave the go signal via text to Wendy Ransom, who started the peal and processional. Hundreds of spectators gathered around the rotunda on all levels of the Mall to watch the procession of musicians to the Rotunda. As they enter the rotunda, a Salvation Army representative used a click counter to count each person with a wristband.

With the processional complete, musicians in place, and moderators positioned with their assigned zones, the program began. Representatives from all parties addressed the crowd. Then the event was kicked off by the Guinness World Records adjudicator who traveled to Minneapolis just for this attempt. Hart gave the downbeat, and we were off! As the musicians played, moderators counted those in their zone and confirmed that all participated, completing a special form provided by GWR to make it official. The GWR adjudicator timed the performance.

Hart gave the cut-off and the gathered crowd cheered. The GWR adjudicator gathered the moderators and the Salvation Army click counter, checking to determine if the click count matched the number that checked in and the moderator totals. The moderators all confirmed no deductions for non-participation, and the totals are tallied.

The GWR adjudicator stepped on stage and took the microphone to announce the results. We did it! We set a new record for largest handbell ensemble with 664 musicians.

The Big Ring was a success and a great experience for the hundreds involved. Following the event, the Salvation Army issued the following statement: “The Salvation Army is known around the world for bell ringing to raise money to help those in need, and The Big Ring was the perfect event to kick off our red kettle season. It was fun and exciting to break the world record, but it was even better to raise awareness for The Salvation Army’s need for volunteer bell ringers. Each one of the red kettles brings in an average of $30 an hour for The Salvation Army, so those volunteers are key to helping us serve the community.”

Handbell Musicians of America is honored to have been part of this wonderful event and to support the worthy mission of the Salvation Army.

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