by Stevie Berryman
The Houston Chamber Ringers will be ringing the opening concert at Pinnacle this summer. It’s okay if you’ve never heard of us. We’re not quite three years old. The vast majority of our members have three years (or less) experience ringing in a community ensemble.
I won’t lie. We had a tremendous boost to start. When Sondra Tucker calls you up and says “I want to start a kickbutt bell choir, are you in?” you should probably say yes. But beyond that, we have no special funding, no special pull, no special recognition, and (forgive me!) no special talent beyond many other community groups. So why are we going to Pinnacle?
I think it might have something to do with our point of view. I believe that does set us apart from other bell choirs. And that unique point of view goes back all the way to our founding.
In June of 2012 three giddy and highly caffeinated women sat at a table in Starbucks and discussed what sort of choir we wanted to belong to. Sondra Tucker, Meredith Gaines, and I all had experience with other community groups, and so we could compile an impressive list of things we didn’t want to do anymore. We didn’t want to pay dues. We didn’t want to buy uniforms. And we didn’t want to play concerts in churches to the same fifty people over and over. It was harder to come up with a list of things we did want, but we managed: we wanted to perform in public venues, we wanted to introduce handbells to people who had never seen them before, and we wanted our audience to have fun. Showing a breathtaking willingness to disregard practical realities, we booked a venue for our Christmas show and printed t-shirts before we had recruited a single musician to join us.
But this notion we had of prioritizing audience enjoyment, we didn’t understand at the time how formative that was. It’s not that everyone else wants their audience to be miserable or bored. It’s just that often the audience’s enjoyment is an afterthought in the concert planning process. Directors program the music for their concerts based on the resources and abilities of their choir. Maybe it’s stuff they like, or maybe it’s what they happen to have in their files. Either way, the audience’s enjoyment is not their top consideration. They play what they like and hope that an audience shows up.
Worse still is when the director does consider the audience’s reaction, and programs pieces she believes will impress them. Being impressed is a logical response (“I did not know they could do that”) rather than an emotional one (“That music makes me feel excited/nostalgic/joyous”). Trying to impress your audience makes the concert all about how skilled your choir is; it’s an exercise of self-laudation.
Instead, the Houston Chamber Ringers have put their focus on the complete audience experience. All of our decisions, from venues to repertoire to financial priorities are made by asking the question, “Will this add to our audience’s enjoyment of our show?” This approach has led to an energizing synergy between concert venue and concert program. We performed our Memorial Day show of Americana favorites in an airport hanger flanked by vintage aircraft, including a working WWII bomber which our audience was able to tour after the show. We collaborated with a full concert band and percussion pit, a vocal choir, a brass ensemble, and a world champion baton twirler. It turns out that if you hold your concert in a hanger, you have room for pretty much anything you can dream up, including a food truck (it was 90+ degrees; the shaved ice was a huge hit.)
Our spring show is called “Now Playing,” and is all about great movie music: The Magnificent Seven, The Entertainer, Dancing Queen, The Rakes of Mallow, etc. That would be a fun show no matter where we performed it. But we wanted to fully immerse our audience in the movie experience, so our show will be held in the largest theater at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. Full food and bar service is offered throughout the performance, movie clips and stills will be playing on the screen behind us as we ring, and the patter between pieces will be replaced by onscreen movie trivia.
So far in our short life we have collaborated with a winery, the Texas Quilt Museum, a children’s choir, a book-signing, an Air Force JROTC unit, several brilliant vocal and instrumental soloists, and Santa Claus. As you might imagine, the question we often ask ourselves is “Will this even work?”. The truth is, we never know for sure, but we’ve always taken that leap, and it has always been a triumph. There is an undeniable energy that comes from performing without a safety net. And our audience has responded; we have between 150-400 people at every show.
While our shows might look different than yours, I suspect the core of each performance is the same: complete commitment to musical excellence. No music goes into a show unless I am confident we can give a superb performance. In that, I imagine we are just like all of you. I look forward to seeing you at Pinnacle. We are so honored and humbled to be performing there. We hope you enjoy the show.