AGEHR Publishing Music Editor Dr. John Behnke to Retire

by J.R. Smith

Many in the handbell community recognize the name Dr. John A. Behnke, whether on the cover of one or more handbell, organ, or choral pieces, or by having worked with him as a composer or arranger, directed by him at a handbell festival, or chatted with him at the AGEHR Publishing booth at National Seminar or other events. Dr. Behnke recently retired as professor of music at Concordia University Wisconsin, and this summer will retire after 16 years as music editor for AGEHR Publishing—Handbell Musicians of America.


Highlights from Dr. Behnke’s musical career as a composer, organist, church music director, handbell director, and educator

  • 1974: Graduated from Concordia-River Forest, Illinois
  • 1977: Received M.Mus. in church music and organ from Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois
  • 1978–79: Studied at the Westphalian Church Music Institute in Herford, West Germany, where he passed the “A” exam in organ with the grade of “1-Excellent.”
  • 1979: Began working as assistant professor of music, St. John’s College, Winfield, Kansas
  • 1984: Earned D.M. from Northwestern University, elected into the Alpha Chapter of Pi Kappa Lambda, a national honorary music society
  • 1986: Began working at Concordia University Wisconsin
  • 1990: Began working as organist at Historic Trinity Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • 2003: Began working as music editor for American Guild of English Handbell Ringers (Now Handbell Musicians of America)
  • 2008: Handbell program at Concordia University Wisconsin awarded AGEHR’s National Exemplary Handbell/Handchime Award

First-time published composers with whom John has worked as AGEHR Publishing music editor

Robert James Lamb
Cathy Marker
Susan Carl
Brian Seemann
Linda Boice
Brian J. Heinlein
Deborah Holden-Holloway
Mitchell Eithun
Joy Toll-Chandler
Phoebe T. T. Yeung
Jill Fedon
Kyler Brengle
Erik Whitehill
Elizabeth Peters
Jana Larson
Derek Hakes
Joshua Kramer
Gloria Axelson
Catherine McMichael
Sandy Mullaney
Lauran Delancy
Robert Boulware
Robyn Tyrrell
Robin Benton
William Moats
Mark Jonathan Schiffert
Neil Harmon
Graeme Morton
Lee Barrow
Miervaldis Ziemelis
Lori Hope Baumel
Emily Li
Tyleen Stults
Kevin Ko

Following are the top-selling AGEHR Publishing pieces released during John’s tenure

AG35251 Tuya Es La Gloria 2006 – Susan T Nelson
AG35286 For the Beauty of the Earth 2009 – J.D. Frizzell
AG35260 Easter Joy 2007 – John Behnke
AG35261 Allegro Spiritoso 2007 – Greg Underwood
AG35225 Fanfare Celebration! 2004 – Michael Mazzententa
AG35264 Prayer 2007 – Jeanne C. Warzyn
AG25002 Animato 2005 – Arnold Sherman
AG36045 Prelude on Thaxted 2011 – Michael Helman
AG36028 Within the Darkest Night 2004 – Derek Hakes
AG23034 Chime In: Advent and Christmas 2009 – John Behnke
AG36041 All Creatures of Our God and King 2009 – John Behnke
AG35297 Joy and Celebration 2011 – Lee Afdahl
AG36030 Allegro Glorioso 2004 – Catherine McMichael
AG35269 Exultate 2008 – Josh Bauder

Throughout his career as a musician, educator, and editor, Dr. Behnke has touched both the personal and professional lives of countless musicians, including many of the best-known names in handbell music.

Well-known as a composer with about 450 published pieces for handbells, organ, and choir, Dr. Behnke discovered his love for composing while a student at Concordia College (now Concordia University Chicago) in River Forest, Illinois, and as a master’s student at Northwestern University. He said, “I took some classes and enjoyed doing it, so I just continued to write.”

On his first job as a church musician at Immanuel Lutheran in Des Plaines, Illinois, he continued to develop his skills as a composer and arranger, writing music for his choral groups. He said, “I would write for the groups that I had,” then added jokingly, “and I pity those people.” He continued, “Now, as I look back, I’m sorry, because as a young composer, you experiment, and sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not so good.” Despite that, one of his professors from Concordia encouraged him to send some organ pieces to Concordia Publishing House. John said, “I put them together and sent them off. And they were rejected. And then they would come back, so I would kind of fix them up a little bit, try it again to see if I could improve them.” After about the fifth time, he said, they were accepted. He said, “that collection, called Seven Hymn Preludes, is still in print, and it still sells, which is just amazing to me all these years later.”

Alleluia Ringers 25th Anniversary

John’s first published handbell piece came about when he read an ad in Overtones that National Music Publications, with Nancy Jessup as editor, was looking for manuscripts. He said, “So I sent a piece to them. It was a setting of Amazing Grace for bells, flute, and guitar, and they accepted it. It was fun to work with Nancy as the editor.”

He has continued to compose and arrange throughout his career. He remarked, “I just continued to keep writing, probably because I hear things in my head and want to put them down; and 450-some published pieces later, here we are. I write for bells, and I write for choir, and I write for organ, and any combination of those three.” Recently, he has started to arrange some of his pieces for orchestra. He said, “I’ve started to arrange some of the pieces for orchestra, mostly string orchestra, and those have worked really well, and been successful.” He added, “One of the double bass players for the Milwaukee Symphony came up and she said, ‘We like your charts.’ That’s a term they use, and I wasn’t sure about it. But it sounded like a good term to me.”

John Meets Handbells

It was in his second job as music director at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Schaumburg, Illinois, where he became a handbell director. Like many handbell directors, he fell into the position without any experience with the instrument. He said, “There was a gift that came in and, suddenly, a set of three octaves of bells was going to show up.” Not knowing what to do, he turned to another local church musician who had a bell choir. He said, “So I asked him, and he said, ‘Oh, there’s a group called AGEHR (now Handbell Musicians of America), and they have a seminar every summer.’ So, I remember saying I’ve got to go to that because I don’t know anything about this instrument.” He continued, “I started with that, and I’ve been doing that ever since. Almost every summer, I’ve been to one of the seminars.”

Like many people, once the handbell bug bit, its effects stuck with him, and handbells would become a major part of John’s career. John compared working with bells to his job as organist. He said, “I love the social aspect of it. Organists are rather solitary people—you practice in a balcony by yourself. I love that all these folks come together like a team. I love the word ‘team’ because you work together to try to produce music, and I always had fun with that.” He also remarked that he liked that the handbell choir would reach out to people the vocal choir did not. He said, “So it really enlarged the program in every church I was ever at.”

It seems only natural that as his career advanced in the academic world, handbells would follow him there as well. He said, “Every place I went, they would ask, ‘What are your abilities, what can you teach?’” He said that often an employer would fashion a job description for the person and their abilities. He continued, “I would say I can do handbells, and in a church-related university, that works very well.”

John taught at St. John’s College in Winfield, Kansas, where he started a bell choir. He earned his doctorate in music from Northwestern University and went on to work as associate music professor, then eventually music professor at Concordia University Wisconsin, where he started the Alleluia Ringers. Prior to John’s arrival at Concordia, some students had an ad hoc group. John said, “When I arrived, that was actually put into the curriculum. We wrote the course syllabus, and it was given credit.”

John the Music Editor

Because of his experience attending AGEHR seminars and getting to know handbell composers personally, he ended up with a position as acquisitions editor for handbells at Concordia Publishing House. He said, “They reached out to me…to find the right people to compose a particular piece, because they didn’t know the handbell people and I did, because I had been to seminars almost every year.”

Then, in 2003, he saw an ad and job description in Overtones for the position of music editor. He called to find out more about the position and was encouraged to send a resume. John said, “To my shock, I was asked to come in and interview. It was Beth Watson (Judd), who was president at the time; Jane Mary Tenhover, the executive director; and Larry Pugh, from Lorenz. Those were the three that served on the interview committee, and I was chosen.”

As someone who attended AGEHR (and then HMA) seminars almost every year since discovering handbells in his second church position, John would now be attending them as an exhibitor for AGEHR Publishing in the Handbell Industry Council (HIC) exhibit areas. He said, “I enjoyed getting to know my fellow exhibitors; many of whom are now dear friends. And I was particularly honored to be elected as vice chair of the Handbell Industry Council for three years.”

John commented about his position with AGEHR Publishing, “My goal has always been to publish great music and be a good steward for the Guild’s financial concerns…try to see if we could break even or make a little bit of money…and I think I’ve been successful at that.”

One of John’s particular joys as music editor has been to encourage new and young composers. He said, “I think we always need more composers; that brings more creativity and more options.” He mentioned many up and coming composers he has enjoyed working with, including Alex Guebert, Matthew Compton, Joy Toll-Chandler, and many others (see sidebar for a list of new composers added to the AGEHR catalog under John Behnke). He remarked, “It’s always fun to work with a first-time published composer, because there’s excitement—the first time you see your piece in print is just so exciting, and I know that—I know that feeling a lot. There is nothing like seeing that first piece in print and hearing others play it.”

While John has helped many new composers hone their work and become published, he readily acknowledges those who have guided him along the way as a handbell composer and editor. He said, “Two individuals who are both friends and mentors are Arnold Sherman and Martha Lynn Thompson. Their expertise and counsel was very much appreciated.”

John noted something that stands out to him in the publishing world since he became music editor is the shift toward more technology. He said, “When I started, things were done with hard copies, sending them through the mail, taking a photograph, making film, then doing the printing.” He said that electronic files, such as PDFs, were unheard of then. “Now,” he said, “music notation files can be sent via e-mail in an instant from composer to editor, back to composer to proof, and then to the publisher for printing.” He continued, “And if you don’t wish a printed hard copy, the PDF files can be put on a website and be downloaded in an instant to someone who wishes to play the piece. And those PDF files can be moved to a tablet that can be used by a ringer or director.” Technology, he said, “has certainly changed publishing over the past sixteen years.”

John Behnke takes a popcorn break while his Milwaukee Handbell Ensemble plays “The Popcorn Song” on boomwhackers at National Seminar in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

John the Conductor

For many years, John has been the conductor of The Alleluia Ringers and The Milwaukee Handbell Ensemble. He began The Alleluia Ringers when he arrived at Concordia University in 1986. The group became part of the curriculum for credit, like the vocal choir and band. During his 29 years, The Alleluia Ringers traveled to Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Estonia, and toured over much of the U.S. They also played seven times with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra for their Holiday Pops concerts. Twice they played for the Guild; once for the Handbell Spectacular in Palm Springs, California and again at National Seminar in Dallas, Texas. The Alleluia Ringers did demo recordings for both Concordia Publishing House and AGEHR.

The Milwaukee Handbell Ensemble began in 2003 as a result of former Concordia ringers staying in the area and wanting to ring at an advanced level. In 2016, they were invited to play for the Area 7 Festival in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and in 2018 they played the closing concert for the National Seminar in Grand Rapids, Michigan (cover photo). They take a tour each year; This year they are headed “up north” with concerts in Fond du Lac, Minocqua, and Wausau, Wisconsin. When Alleluia Ringers could not play for the Milwaukee Symphony, this group was available and has played six times since for the Holiday Pops concerts. MHE has been doing demo recordings for AGEHR from 2003 to the present.

What the Future Holds

While John retired from Concordia in 2015, and will be retiring from AGEHR Publishing this summer, he stresses that he will remain involved in music and handbells. He said, “I’m not stopping music. Even in retirement, I’ll still be doing all sorts of things musically. So, yes it’s a retirement of certain jobs, but that doesn’t mean that my life has ended.” He said that he will still be writing music and conducting at festivals. He is also continuing to publish his pieces under his own JAB Publishing at

John says he and his wife, Chris (“Mrs. B” to many of John’s students), look forward to their “golden years.” He said, “I’m looking forward to the next chapter, I really am—to have the freedom to write, to have the freedom to play, to do some things, maybe challenge myself musically in some ways that I haven’t had the time to before.” He said that he has many projects he still wants to complete as he looks back through old music or at music he still wants to write and things he still wants to accomplish. He said, “I hope people will still see my name a lot.”

John wishes to express his gratitude to HMA and AGEHR Publishing for the opportunity to serve as music editor. He said, “I wish to thank Jane Mary Tenhover, Larry Pugh, and Beth Judd who had the incredible wisdom in 2003 to hire me, as well as our executive director Jenny Cauhorn and the wonderful staff members I have had the privilege to serve with over the last 16 years. Thank you for your friendship and support over all these years.”

Finally, he said, “I look forward to “partying” with everyone at the National Seminar in St. Louis in July, my last as Music Editor. As usual you will find me at the most excellent AGEHR Publishing exhibit.”

I Saw Three Ships

arr. John A. Behnke
National Seminar 2019, Grand Rapids, Michigan


Kingsley, arr. Hornibrook 
National Seminar 2019, Grand Rapids, Michigan

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