by Nicholas A. Hanson
When I began my third year in my current teaching position, the school’s handbell future seemed bleak. My high school ensemble only had two members enrolled and my new fifth grade ensemble was one of the smallest I ever had. I came to the sad realization that my students were beginning to lose interest in handbells at the school, a school where handbells have been a part of the music curriculum since the 1960s. Something had to change; an evolution was necessary to keep my current students engaged while enticing the younger students to actively choose handbells as their instrumental ensemble in fifth grade. That something happened on Tuesday, June 9, 2009, at about 11:16 a.m.
“…rhythmic, loud, and fun—the three adjectives every middle school handbell ringer wants!”
At my school, the combined seventh and eighth grade handbell ensemble always performs at the final assembly of the year. The assembly is literally the last official event for the entire school before everyone heads off to the joys of summer. It was during this assembly that the middle school handbell ensemble always performed something rhythmic, loud, and fun—the three adjectives every middle school handbell ringer wants! That year, we pulled out all the stops and performed an arrangement I did of “Clocks” by Coldplay. The audience was in awe! As we handbell musicians know, our art has often been labeled, stereotyped, and thought of as being able to perform only one way: adequate. This audience of over 1,000 K-12 students, faculty/staff, and attending families was in shock that our performance was fun and worthwhile to hear! Of course there were big fans of the handbell performances before that specific date, but this was when everything started to change for the program at my school. Was it the song? Was it the fun-factor? Sure, those were definitely part of the equation. But looking back on the student-involvement and growth of the handbell program these five-and-a-half years since, I can say wholeheartedly that my students are now engaged because they strive for, and anticipate, success.
Today’s youth feed on success and instant feedback, and young handbell ringers are no different. The Impulse Handbell Ensemble is an excellent example of this. These high school handbell students, under the enthusiastic leadership of Ryan Guth, was made famous because of this viral internet video and are now taking the American handbell world by storm.
Some would argue that it was this very video which made them famous, and there is a nugget of truth to that, but it is important to note that this video never would have happened in the first place if these ringers did not feel they could be successful in their performance. The social news website buzzfeed.com made the connection with Impulse because they knew they found something special. Now, after more than 215,000 views and over 1,500 likes, Impulse is riding that success with even greater aspirations in mind.
While success is essential throughout the ringer’s entire time in a handbell ensemble, it is the first day which is the most vital. Karen Eastburn has great resources on her website (See link at left). I especially like the information about choosing beginning repertoire, and the Dropbox.com link to a great resource of beginning music. For those handbell ensembles which are established but have new ringers joining along the way, I recommend reading this specific blog at Nancy Kirkner’s website (See link at left). Many tips are available here to make the new ringers feel successful, even if playing catch up with the other members of the ensemble.
When students become invested in any activity, be it a sports team, a robotics team, or in music, they are there to grow, to have fun, and to succeed. Success equals investment and investment equals success. For me, and from that specific point in my own handbell teaching history, I have students who are driven towards that feeling of success every day. For some of them, handbells is what they are most successful at currently in their life. This drive has built my program from three-and-a-half classes with fifty-four students to four year-long classes with 108 students (including some taking private handbell lessons).
I arrange at least one pop songs for three of those four ensembles annually (video above), as that has become a successful tradition in these groups. That feeling of accomplishment is what keeps them coming back for more, year in and year out.