by Stephanie Wiltse

Community and professional groups face the unique task of creating a loyal following. This article focuses on the desire to provide a connection with listeners, in the hope of providing a meaningful, emotional, and musical experience for your audiences.

When I was invited to write an article for Overtones, I took a moment to ponder some of the things that are important to me as a director of a community/professional handbell ensemble. As a director of church and college groups as well, I know that many of our musical goals are the same, but these groups come with a built-in audience, for the most part. Community and professional groups face the unique task of creating a loyal following. I decided I wanted to focus especially on my desire to provide a connection with our listeners, in the hope of providing a meaningful emotional and musical experience for our audiences.
Let me first get this out of the way: this article will use the “P” word: “performance!” In our church ensembles, this word feels inappropriate: we strive to be oriented more toward praise than for performance. (Though, I would like to argue that these two words can peacefully coexist.) At any rate, this article will focus more on concert-type presentations, which would fall more into the realm of a “performance.”

Converting the “I Hate Handbells” Camp

How many people do you know who don’t like handbells all that well? Who see our art as a bit of a joke? Working in the college arena, I have faced the challenges of encouraging professors to see our handbell groups as being every bit as legitimate as the other ensembles of the music department. We still struggle with the “handbells as toy” mind set. (This term emerged on Handbell-L a few years ago as people discussed the fact that handbells are often seen as cute and fun rather than as a legitimate art.)

I remember Don Allured talking about one of his church members who, when seeing in the Sunday bulletin that the bells were playing, always considered skipping church that day. As church choir directors, we work hard to provide a selection that is well prepared, uplifting, and, we hope, well presented. Yet some church members still see handbells as that portion of the worship service that is endured rather than welcomed.
Community and professional ensembles fight this mentality when trying to draw audiences for our concerts.

People who don’t want to endure a four-minute anthem in church are unlikely to attend an hour-long handbell concert. In fact, when I was interviewed for one of my college positions, I was told that the handbells always performed their final spring concert in combination with the flute choir, because “No one would want to listen to an hour of handbell music!” Obviously, he had never attended a (insert your favorite community group’s name here) concert!

What Do They Want from Us?

How can we as community and professional handbell ensembles provide an experience that will make people want to attend a handbell concert? Part of the key is getting people in the door, of course. That’s another subject for someone else to address. I’m here to address what we provide once we get them in the door.
We live in a tremendously media oriented society. Movies, video games, iPods, TV, DVDs, all provide powerful images and emotional experiences right in our living rooms. People are less and less inclined to leave their home theater for a live concert. They know at any live event they will have to deal with annoying audience members with cell phones, pagers, and atrocious concert manners. It’s much easier to pay $5.00 to rent a DVD and stay at home.

Besides, people have become SO busy. Kids are overextended, and so are their parents. Life is crazy. Once the weekend comes, people want to relax and nest at home. This can mean death for local arts organizations. It becomes more and more difficult to get people to leave their homes, whether for a concert or an arts event.

So, what sells out in your home town, and why? Is it a touring show of a Broadway play; a local high school’s production of a musical or a concert, or a local vocal or instrumental group’s year end concert?
In my opinion, it all boils down the fact that people want to see something that they can feel connected to; that can make them feel something. Yes, we want it to be excellent; but we also want it to be an experience that moves us.

So, What Do People Truly Want in a Live Concert?

1. They want to see people they know or have heard of.

This can fall into the category of a phenomenal artist who happens through town and sells out the local arena through name recognition and reputation. But this could also apply to school concerts, or local theatre productions, or even local or nationally known handbell ensembles.
Before we develop a following, many of our groups spend the first few concert seasons playing concerts mostly to friends and family members. There’s nothing wrong with that. But eventually, we hope to extend our loyal audience beyond our families. Given luck and the right kind of PR, we might even be able to become celebrities in our own home town.

2. They want to see something that amazes them.

Maybe it’s the circus or a magic show; maybe it’s a touring group with a spectacular light show. But it can also be a great handbell ensemble. What we do is a very visual display of coordination; people can and do find it amazing.

3. They want to FEEL something.

This, to me, is the bottom line of creating a performance that makes people want to come back. Families may eventually get tired of supporting our efforts. The amazement factor can wane after people start to take our sparkling 16th note runs and triple Shellys for granted. But we can continue to focus our efforts on presenting fine music, played well, with energy, enthusiasm and passion; and offering performances which engage our audiences and help them to leave our concerts feeling energized and uplifted.

Taking It to the Next Level

Let’s say our ensemble is already pretty well established, and let’s assume we’re playing at a relatively high level of excellence. Let’s start thinking about taking our performances a step further. How can we better connect with our audience?

Who Are You?

Let’s begin with the question: Who are you as a group? Some groups have established a definite and easily recognizable style: Strikepoint of Duluth is fun loving and high energy. Sonos is known for both classical and innovative music performed at a high level of musicianship. Raleigh Ringers perform serious music brilliantly, combined with a good dose of humor and shtick. Each of these groups has a unique approach to handbell ringing; each has found their own special style, which is reflected in the repertoire they select and the way they present it. For most of us, we’ve established ourselves more at a local level and are unique by virtue of the fact that we’re the only community group in town. Nationally known groups have more incentive to define themselves to set them apart from other ensembles. However, even local groups will find their own unique personalities emerging as they develop signature repertoire and performance practices. That unique personality has a great impact on how we perceive ourselves, how we present ourselves, and how we’re perceived by others.

Performance: Putting On Your Game Face

How many of us have completed a concert and had audience members come up to comment how “some of your ringers weren’t smiling.” Horrors! Yet, how many of those same people would go up to members of a professional orchestra and complain that they weren’t smiling? Why is there such an expectation that handbell ringers should grin their way through a concert? Probably because we don’t have instruments in front of our faces. Maybe because we stand facing the audience, for the most part, and the audience wants assurance that we are going to be interesting and entertaining to watch. I wonder, though: could an audience find energy, engagement and passion just as engaging as big smiles?

Your ringers’ facial expressions may well depend upon your group’s “personality,” as well as the particular music being presented. A symphonic group wouldn’t smile their way through a concert of primarily serious music, whether contemporary works or transcriptions of classical music. A “fun” group would look silly if they frowned all through a performance of “Under the Sea.” Imagine a group grinning on a performance of a piece like William Payn’s “Requiem” or “Elegy?”

What I really enjoy seeing is a facial expression that not only conveys engagement and passion, but also an awareness of the character of a piece. That tells me the musician is fully involved in the music and not just going through the motions with a pasted-on smile. As the sun can be in full, brilliant view or obscured by moving clouds, a human face can and should be able to convey a full range of emotion, from sunny and bright to dark and gloomy.

Speaking of the character of a piece, our task for each piece that we learn is to grasp a sense of what the music is about. Does it tell a story? Is the emotion the same throughout, or are their contrasts and changes in mood?

Michael Helman’s gorgeous “By the Lakeside” is a wonderful case in point. This piece tells the Biblical story of Jesus calming the waters: it starts out with a tranquil and sparkling section, eventually gives way to a very violent and agitated section conveying the storm, and is then followed by a return to peace and tranquility.

On a piece such as this, the ringers must be actors playing a part. At the beginning and the end, a serene and peaceful facial expression and posture is needed. Both ringers and conductor can convey the peace and stillness of a placid lake; body movements need to be graceful in context with the character of the music. Even the page turns should be considered as part of the music itself and done in the character of the piece.
One of my ringers asked jokingly, “Is it OK to frown during the middle section?” But, truly, as ringers are using martellato-lifts to express lightning and the way the disciples’ boat is being buffeted by the sea, serious and intense facial expressions are completely appropriate. Body language should change as ringers lean into the tables and express the fear the disciples were feeling during the violent storm. What an opportunity to engage the audience by acting out all of the extremes in the story!

I love to see a ringer who looks totally engaged in his/her performance, with all the different moods and colors involved. In our local symphony, most of the players are intense, sometimes blasé, but most of the time very focused. However, there is one first violinist in particular who always appears to be in a state of bliss when she performs. Her facial expression is mesmerizing. It’s distracting in a way, but it’s also extremely engaging. As audience members, we watch her and we connect with her. We want to know why she’s having such a great time, and we find ourselves glancing at her throughout the evening. There’s a radiance in her expression, even when serious and intense. There’s no doubt but that she loves what she’s doing. How wonderful if we could encourage our ringers to convey that same sense of engagement and bliss.

And what if you’re having a bad day and don’t feel radiant at all? Well, that’s where acting comes in.
Another point: we’ve learned that in handbell ringing, dynamics must be completely overdone; louds must be louder, softs must be softer, otherwise it all sounds the same to the listener. The same is true of our facial expressions. Sometimes we’ll hear our ringers say “I thought I was smiling!” But it’s a fact that we may have to work harder at truly achieving the facial expression we think we have. That’s where it’s good to bring in the video camera or an outside consultant to help prove to us how we appear to our audience.

We Need to Get Out More

As community/professional ringers, most of us are extremely overextended. I find it ironic how much we want people to come see us in concert, yet we are unwilling to take the time to go to concerts ourselves.
There is so much to be learned by watching other groups in concert. Does your community have a professional symphony? Attending their concerts would not only help support another ensemble, but it would help with ideas as to what makes audiences respond.

Let’s think bigger. Has Stomp come to your community? This group is all about percussion, synergy and rhythm. How about Blast? This offshoot of Drum Corps International brings high energy wind music, marching and percussion to the stage. Not only is this group innovative (including bringing handbells to the stage), but they bring a high energy, inspirational show to the stage. And they are extremely exciting to see in concert. After I saw Blast in concert, I walked out remembering one act in particular; it was a duel between two drummers that was absolutely riveting. These two drummers played with such intensity and emotion that the audience was spellbound. For those of us who stand behind tables and ring, with our heads tipped down and eyes buried in our music, there’s great motivation and inspiration in seeing this kind of performance.
Handbell ringers have a great deal to learn from groups as Stomp and Blast, as well from other professional ensembles. How about Blue Man Group? Have we connected with local artists such as Symphony, Ballet, Opera and Theatre? We can look for inspiration everywhere in our communities.

The Role of the Conductor as Communicator

I’ve chosen to end with the role of the conductor, because this is something near and dear to my heart. I may be something of an anomaly; I’m someone who began as a ringer, was encouraged to become a conductor and have discovered that, though I miss ringing, conducting is a role I absolutely love playing.
I’ve always been enamored of directors. My father was a band director and my mother was an elementary music teacher. Music was a big part of our lives. I was fascinated when I watched my dad direct the high school band; I always thought he was a wonderful conductor; restrained, yet very clear and expressive. I thought that was something I might like to do someday. Yet I felt somewhat constrained by opinions (my own included) as to appropriate authority roles for women back in the early ‘70s, and my career path took a different direction.

Like many people, I first discovered handbells as a ringer, and later was lured into directing simply because of a need. The surprise, for me, was how much I loved it.
Back to expressive playing and conducting: let’s assume that our ensemble is well rehearsed and knows their music. Let’s assume we have incorporated musical expression into the music from the very beginning, and we have worked together to mutually understand what the music is trying to say. Now it’s time to perform the music in public.

As directors, we need to be constantly aware of what we are offering to our ringers in performance. Do we conduct with our heads buried in the music? I remember hearing the comment “If you want your ringers to look at you, you’d better give them something to look at!”
If the true goal in performance is to seek a feeling of connectedness between ringer and audience, that emotional spark can begin with the conductor/ringer relationship. As directors, we must know our music well enough to be able to make eye contact with our ringers. Our ringers are often mirrors of our own facial expressions. We can demonstrate the style and the meaning of a piece, not only through our conducting, but with our face.

I long ago abandoned the practice of mouthing the beats or measure numbers except in the direst of emergencies. Mouthing the beat numbers is hard on the voice (even when doing it silently, there is vocal strain involved), but it also counteracts the phrasing we may be trying to demonstrate with our hands and arms (and baton, for many of us). And it’s very hard to smile when mouthing “one and two and three and four and.”

One dramatic change that takes place between rehearsal mode and performance is that often we go from using many words (in rehearsal) to using no words at all (in performance). Instead of talking about what we want, we must demonstrate what we want. We have to act out our vision of the music.
Yet that change can be jarringly abrupt unless we begin the shift prior to the performance, which could mean using fewer words in rehearsal and doing more visual conducting earlier on. We need to be able to show a ritard rather than to yell out the counts. We need to paint a picture of the phrasing we want rather than to tell the ringers how it should sound. And, by the way, we all need to practice how our faces will look in performance.

As conductors, we need to be unafraid of demonstrating everything we expect to hear in the music, from the grandest moment to the tiniest nuance. We need to stand up straight, and open our faces to our ringers. And we need to actively show the emotion we feel in the piece. A friend of mine gave me a refrigerator magnet that says “Live to the point of tears.” This to me expresses what making music is about. We have to come out of ourselves (how many directors are introverts by nature?) and become larger than life for those few precious moments on stage, as we inspire our ringers to passionate music making.

Looking Forward

In conclusion: we cannot be passive about the future of our art. Admittedly, many of us formed our ensembles initially as “vanity” groups; as an opportunity to ring more challenging music for our own fun. But our groups have quickly become integral to our own arts communities. We have developed followings. Yet we must look realistically at those who attend our concerts. Are the majority of our concert goers persons around retirement age? Are a large number of them handbell ringers?

We must continue to think outside of our current demographic and into the next generation of handbell fans. Can we survive as our constituency continues to age? Can we use expressive and exciting performances to win over ringers who are now in their 20s and 30s? Or are we headed toward extinction with the further graying of our following?

It’s my hope that community and professional handbell ensembles will continue to inspire one another, and to further promote the art of handbell ringing toward not only toward greater musical excellence, but toward more intense and stronger connections with our audiences and with one another.