Answering the call to provide two months of small ensembles for Christmas

by Stephanie Shealey

Stephanie Shealey
President, Magic of Bronze

The Request

When I saw the email on August 3rd, I was immediately intrigued by the first statement: “Hello. I have a client that it interested in having a handbell choir for the holiday season.” Holiday season. Living in Central Florida, my brain immediately said – THEME PARKS. After that brief bit of excitement, I immediately grounded myself back into reality. Most everyone in Magic of Bronze has a full time job. Some of us are music teachers, some of us play in other musical ensembles, both with our own list of holiday commitments. We had made the decision the past 2 fall seasons to hold our fall concert the weekend before Thanksgiving – freeing up December for gigs and concerts where not everyone would be required to attend. Still, I had to call and see what exactly they meant by ‘handbell choir for the holiday season.’

When I first talked to the entertainment company, they were in exploratory mode. They had gotten a request from the entertainment department at Disney Springs to bring handbells for their Christmas Season – November 9th through January 6th. In that first conversation, they explained that they were interested in just a small ensemble, a quartet perhaps, to perform seven days a week, between 7-11pm, and that they would be paying the organization. I thanked him, and said that I would have to talk to my group to see if we would be able to pull it together.

The Commitment

My initial reaction was that there was no way we would be able to pull this off. It would be a lot of commitment from our membership, and 11pm is late after working your day job (or having to go to it the next morning!) But at the same time, it would be a big ‘win’ for our group. I took the next few minutes to call each member of our executive board individually. Surprisingly enough, no one told me I was crazy for considering the offer. We had our auditions a few days later, and I threw it out to the group gathered. There was a general excitement about the prospect, and when I asked, who here would be willing to give up 1-2 nights per week for this, if you got paid a small stipend each night you went. Out of the 18 people there that evening, I only got two no’s. Before telling the entertainment company that we were in, I sent out a sign-up form for every night, and asked people to sign up for as many dates as they would be comfortable ringing. Within a week, I had all but seven slots filled for 56 nights. I also made a list of 18 people I knew in the Central Florida handbell community that I could possibly ask to help out if we needed additional slots filled, and reached out to Suncoast Bronze, to see their interest/availability in covering for us the two nights we already had concerts scheduled. Once I confirmed I had ringers available for Christmas Eve (since that was a non-negotiable date to the client), I reached back out and told the entertainment company we were in.

The next few weeks included a lot of waiting as the contract was negotiated. When all was said and done, we ended up with a contract to ring four nights a week – Saturday through Tuesday – which alleviated some of the concerns we had of ringer burn-out. While we had gotten past the first hurdle, we then had to figure out how we were going to pull off the gig logistically.

The Music

The first hurdle was music. In order to get the nights covered, we were not going to be able to have the same group of 4 people available every night. We also were starting fairly late in the season – it was already October by the time our contract was finalized, so rehearsal time was limited. Our group also includes a wide range of skill levels – not everyone in the group is comfortable with 4-in-hand, and we were also concerned about stamina when ringing four 30-minute sets in a night. We ended up choosing to focus on 8-bell music (thanks to Larry Sue and the Porta-Carol series, a collection of 10 Christmas carols for four ringers with no bell changes or passing).

The Equipment

We wanted to limit the amount of equipment that was needed for this gig. Our first thought was to bring a 3 foot table and two music stands, so that we could play songs in various keys and have a place to set extra bells behind us. However, we didn’t know how far it would be from our storage area to the performance area, and we would still need some form of a cart to help haul the equipment. Some of the songs in the Porta Carol series have accidentals written in, so we decided it would be better to have a table in front of the ringers, but 3’ is fairly small for four people to stand behind. After looking at various carts online, but not finding anything ideal, I texted my dad asking how hard/expensive it would be to build a small, lightweight cabinet on wheels. He asked for a sketch of what we were needing, and got to work building something from the scraps in his garage. We ended up with a 4’x2’ cabinet, and made a pad and tablecloth to fit it. After seeing our storage area in person, we made doors for the backside of the cabinet with a lock, and ended up leaving the bells, music, stands, and stand-lights locked inside, with the table remaining fully “dressed” otherwise.

The Experience

Overall, we have had a great experience with this gig. In general, people hung around for 3-4 songs before moving on, and we would get crowds of up to 30 people surrounding us. We saw a 20% increase in followers on Facebook during the course of the gig, and we have had five people contact us about how to join the group (at least three of which saw us performing at Disney).

Now that all is said and done, Magic of Bronze performed on 33 evenings, with Suncoast Bronze taking one night for us when we had a concert, and one night getting completely rained out. We did utilize three former Magic of Bronze members to help fill in some dates around the holidays (and we gave them some other nights as well). While we had a backup system planned – with one person “on call” each day for last-minute changes – we only had two days where we had to call in the “on call” person. We only had two days – Christmas Day and New Year’s Day – where there were struggles with traffic/parking, but on both days, we had at least 1 ringer there able to get our equipment rolling, and all 4 ringers by the start of the first set.

While we are just starting our spring season, I am really excited to see how this experience has transformed our group as a whole. The experience of performing in a small ensemble has improved all of our skills in watching and responding to body language of our other ringers, which I hope translates when we get back to the full group. It also has been an opportunity to ‘hang out’ with each other – get to know each other on a personal level between the breaks.

One of the quartets appear in the following video of a tour through the Disney Springs attraction by a visitor on YouTube. Starting the video will jump it to the point where the quartet is playing.

The Challenge

Often, as leaders in a community based ensemble, we are faced with (or dream up) opportunities that seem too large or not feasible for a volunteer group. Many times they are. However, we encourage you to take a step out of your comfort zone every now and then. Present an idea to your group to get buy-in, and if you get the buy-in, go for it. The sacrifice of time and energy can reap significant benefits for your group.

The Request

When I saw the email on August 3rd, I was immediately intrigued by the first statement. Hello. I have a client that it interested in having a handbell choir for the holiday season. Holiday season. Living in Central Florida, my brain immediately said – THEME PARKS. After that brief bit of excitement, I immediately grounded myself back into reality. Most everyone in Magic of Bronze has a full time job. Some of us are music teachers, some of us play in other musical ensembles, both with our own list of holiday commitments. We had made the decision the past 2 fall seasons to hold our fall concert the weekend before Thanksgiving – freeing up December for gigs and concerts where not everyone would be required to attend. Still, I had to call and see what exactly they meant by ‘handbell choir for the holiday season.’

When I first talked to the entertainment company, they were in exploratory mode. They had gotten a request from the entertainment department at Disney Springs to bring handbells for their Christmas Season – November 9th through January 6th. In that first conversation, they explained that they were interested in just a small ensemble, a quartet perhaps, to perform seven days a week, between 7-11pm, and that they would be paying the organization. I thanked him, and said that I would have to talk to my group to see if we would be able to pull it together.

The Commitment

My initial reaction was that there was no way we would be able to pull this off. It would be a lot of commitment from our membership, and 11pm is late after working your day job (or having to go to it the next morning!) But at the same time, it would be a big ‘win’ for our group. I took the next few minutes to call each member of our executive board individually. Surprisingly enough, no one told me I was crazy for considering the offer. We had our auditions a few days later, and I threw it out to the group gathered. There was a general excitement about the prospect, and when I asked, who here would be willing to give up 1-2 nights per week for this, if you got paid a small stipend each night you went. Out of the 18 people there that evening, I only got two no’s. Before telling the entertainment company that we were in, I sent out a sign-up form for every night, and asked people to sign up for as many dates as they would be comfortable ringing. Within a week, I had all but seven slots filled for 56 nights. I also made a list of 18 people I knew in the Central Florida handbell community that I could possibly ask to help out if we needed additional slots filled, and reached out to Suncoast Bronze, to see their interest/availability in covering for us the two nights we already had concerts scheduled. Once I confirmed I had ringers available for Christmas Eve (since that was a non-negotiable date to the client), I reached back out and told the entertainment company we were in.

The next few weeks included a lot of waiting as the contract was negotiated. When all was said and done, we ended up with a contract to ring four nights a week – Saturday through Tuesday – which alleviated some of the concerns we had of ringer burn-out. While we had gotten past the first hurdle, we then had to figure out how we were going to pull off the gig logistically.

The Music

The first hurdle was music. In order to get the nights covered, we were not going to be able to have the same group of 4 people available every night. We also were starting fairly late in the season – it was already October by the time our contract was finalized, so rehearsal time was limited. Our group also includes a wide range of skill levels – not everyone in the group is comfortable with 4-in-hand, and we were also concerned about stamina when ringing four 30-minute sets in a night. We ended up choosing to focus on 8-bell music (thanks to Larry Sue and the Porta-Carol series, a collection of 10 Christmas carols for four ringers with no bell changes or passing).

The Equipment

We wanted to limit the amount of equipment that was needed for this gig. Our first thought was to bring a 3 foot table and two music stands, so that we could play songs in various keys and have a place to set extra bells behind us. However, we didn’t know how far it would be from our storage area to the performance area, and we would still need some form of a cart to help haul the equipment. Some of the songs in the Porta Carol series have accidentals written in, so we decided it would be better to have a table in front of the ringers, but 3’ is fairly small for four people to stand behind. After looking at various carts online, but not finding anything ideal, I texted my dad asking how hard/expensive it would be to build a small, lightweight cabinet on wheels. He asked for a sketch of what we were needing, and got to work building something from the scraps in his garage. We ended up with a 4’x2’ cabinet, and made a pad and tablecloth to fit it. After seeing our storage area in person, we made doors for the backside of the cabinet with a lock, and ended up leaving the bells, music, stands, and stand-lights locked inside, with the table remaining fully “dressed” otherwise.

The Experience

Overall, we have had a great experience with this gig. In general, people hung around for 3-4 songs before moving on, and we would get crowds of up to 30 people surrounding us. We saw a 20% increase in followers on Facebook during the course of the gig, and we have had five people contact us about how to join the group (at least three of which saw us performing at Disney).

Now that all is said and done, Magic of Bronze performed on 33 evenings, with Suncoast Bronze taking one night for us when we had a concert, and one night getting completely rained out. We did utilize three former Magic of Bronze members to help fill in some dates around the holidays (and we gave them some other nights as well). While we had a backup system planned – with one person “on call” each day for last-minute changes – we only had two days where we had to call in the “on call” person. We only had two days – Christmas Day and New Year’s Day – where there were struggles with traffic/parking, but on both days, we had at least 1 ringer there able to get our equipment rolling, and all 4 ringers by the start of the first set.

While we are just starting our spring season, I am really excited to see how this experience has transformed our group as a whole. The experience of performing in a small ensemble has improved all of our skills in watching and responding to body language of our other ringers, which I hope translates when we get back to the full group. It also has been an opportunity to ‘hang out’ with each other – get to know each other on a personal level between the breaks.

One of the quartets appear in the following video of a tour through the Disney Springs attraction by a visitor on YouTube. Starting the video will jump it to the point where the quartet is playing.

The Challenge

Often, as leaders in a community based ensemble, we are faced with (or dream up) opportunities that seem too large or not feasible for a volunteer group. Many times they are. However, we encourage you to take a step out of your comfort zone every now and then. Present an idea to your group to get buy-in, and if you get the buy-in, go for it. The sacrifice of time and energy can reap significant benefits for your group.

Stephanie Shealey
President, Magic of Bronze


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