Challenges of Maintaining a Handbell Program in an Isolated Area

by Becky Yoza

Becky is co-founder of Honolulu Bronze, a community-based handbell ensemble. She started ringing at age five and has rung in church groups in five states as well as several non-profit, auditioned community handbell choirs. Becky has performed solos, duets, and ensembles in multiple churches on O‘ahu and the mainland.  She enjoys teaching and sharing her handbell passion with the church bell choir she directs.  Becky works as a Nurse Practitioner and a Lecturer of nursing at Hawai‘i Pacific University.

Aloha! Hawai‘i is roughly 2500 miles from the west coast. We are no stranger to geographic isolation. In fact, this might be a reason why many of us live here. A laissez-faire attitude coupled with a loose interpretation of time comes with the territory as locals throw a shaka hand gesture which translates to “hang loose.” That said, island life can wreak havoc on a handbell choir. Like our mainland counterparts, we have many of the same challenges facing us but we have the additional challenge of geographic isolation. Despite this, handbell ringing in Hawai‘i is fun and rewarding as well.

I have subbed in multiple churches on O‘ahu which speaks to the constant need for ringers in such a small area. The first missionaries to Hawai‘i were Presbyterians and Congregationalists so it’s no surprise that handbells are part of the Hawai‘i sacred music tradition. One of the oldest churches in Hawai‘i, Kawaiaha‘o church, was founded 200 years ago this year and includes handbells as part of its music ministry. Their constant theme is not having enough ringers to fill the need. There is definitely a smaller pool of ringers so directors sometimes teach handbells to non-ringers and sometimes to non-musicians.

If you thought the handbell community was small on the mainland, wait until you see Hawai‘i. The same names come up over and over and it is not difficult to know all the ringers on the island. This can be a benefit when looking for subs because it’s easy to take out your phone and run down your contacts list. The problem comes when the entire list is otherwise occupied.

Island life brings many activities year-round which compete for the time of the ringers. We all struggle with commitment from our ringers when we have to share responsibilities. High cost of living means that people work multiple jobs so little time is available to devote to activities such as handbells. In a church environment when ringers are volunteers, we must be inclusive to all who want to participate. We cannot afford to turn interested parties away. It’s a delicate balance of maintaining the integrity of the choir while being inclusive to all levels of ability and commitment. The fellowship of making music together is the driving force for many who participate in church choirs.

A segment of Hawai’i’s population is, by nature, transient. Due to military assignments and government contracts, people are always coming and going to and from the islands. We rely on ringers acquired from elsewhere. Because the larger ringing community is so small in general, it is not uncommon to hear from a mainland friend that one of their ringers is moving to Hawai‘i and can we find a ringing home for them. The other side of that coin is that ringers leave to go back to the mainland and we call our mainland friends to return the favor.

Ringers from Hawai‘i may not be able to attend conferences and workshops on the mainland due to the expense of travel. In addition, traveling across up to four time zones means employers may not be willing to accommodate the extra travel time. Moreover, conferences and workshops are rarely held in Hawai‘i due to the same constraints. The result is ringers who are unable to enjoy the fellowship of the larger Handbell Musicians of America (HMA) community, unable to share their talents with their mainland counterparts, and unable to learn from experts in the handbell community.

It is not only the ringers who are hindered by the geographic isolation but also the directors. While there is a dearth of ringers there is more of a paucity of directors. Our long-standing HMA Area 12 Hawai‘i state representative, Karen Carlisle, was leading seven choirs on O‘ahu at one point. Local directors do not have opportunities to learn new skills, connect with other directors, and grow in their art. HMA Area 12 has been diligent in inviting handbell experts to Hawai‘i to lead workshops. While workshops do not occur with the same frequency as on the mainland, we really appreciate the opportunity to reach out to ringers on other islands who come to those workshops. One new friend was so inspired that she came to National Seminar in Anaheim. It would be great to have more such opportunities here in Hawai‘i.

Support from church leadership and congregations can make or break a church handbell choir. As one can imagine, financial and practical support from the church allows the choir to purchase music and equipment as well as perform maintenance on the bells. Churches vary widely whether they pay their handbell directors or not as well as in their budget allowances for bells. Providing for opportunities to play in the worship service are another way that congregations can support their handbell choirs. Some choirs are only allowed to play once or twice a year and not at all during Advent/Christmas or Lent/Easter due to “competing” music ministries, while others enjoy monthly opportunities to play in worship.

Availability of trained professionals for handbell maintenance and availability of replacement parts can be a challenge as getting parts from the mainland or shipping bells for refurbishment can be cost-prohibitive. A last-minute cracked casting or snapped handle can put an end to a performance without a deep bench of replacements from other choirs. Knowing most of the ringers and directors on island can be helpful in that situation.

Ringing in Hawai‘i isn’t all challenges, though; there are many unique rewards as well. While our geography can be a challenge it can also be an advantage. There are increased choices for venues and variation of events because the weather affords us the ability to play outdoor events all year. We do not have to schlep bells and equipment in snow and freezing cold. We do not have to worry about a blizzard cancelling our concerts. Although, we have been known to play outside while it is sprinkling and also with trade winds assisting us on our page turns. There is nothing better than playing outside under a rainbow overlooking the crashing ocean waves.

We enjoy the same fellowship as our mainland counterparts and appreciate the joy of contributing to worship service. Phyllis Haines, handbell director of Kawaiaha‘o church, states that the friendships made through handbells and the fun of making music together is especially rewarding to the church community. Carlisle echoes this sentiment, “the challenges fade when you experience the joy of a group dedicated to the common goal of making music together.” Hawai‘i is a tight-knit community where ‘ohana (family) is very important. In that same vein, church ‘ohana is part of this belief. Church communities support us and welcome us. My quartet has enjoyed ringing at many churches on O‘ahu. We have targeted churches that have bell choirs or have a set of bells without an active choir. We love being welcomed into a church ‘ohana and appreciate the aloha they share with us. We love sharing our passion for handbells with the island and we endeavor to expand the local handbell community even more. With all our love and aloha,
a hui hou (“until we meet again”).

Aloha! Hawai‘i is roughly 2500 miles from the west coast. We are no stranger to geographic isolation. In fact, this might be a reason why many of us live here. A laissez-faire attitude coupled with a loose interpretation of time comes with the territory as locals throw a shaka hand gesture which translates to “hang loose.” That said, island life can wreak havoc on a handbell choir. Like our mainland counterparts, we have many of the same challenges facing us but we have the additional challenge of geographic isolation. Despite this, handbell ringing in Hawai‘i is fun and rewarding as well.

I have subbed in multiple churches on O‘ahu which speaks to the constant need for ringers in such a small area. The first missionaries to Hawai‘i were Presbyterians and Congregationalists so it’s no surprise that handbells are part of the Hawai‘i sacred music tradition. One of the oldest churches in Hawai‘i, Kawaiaha‘o church, was founded 200 years ago this year and includes handbells as part of its music ministry. Their constant theme is not having enough ringers to fill the need. There is definitely a smaller pool of ringers so directors sometimes teach handbells to non-ringers and sometimes to non-musicians.

If you thought the handbell community was small on the mainland, wait until you see Hawai‘i. The same names come up over and over and it is not difficult to know all the ringers on the island. This can be a benefit when looking for subs because it’s easy to take out your phone and run down your contacts list. The problem comes when the entire list is otherwise occupied.

Island life brings many activities year-round which compete for the time of the ringers. We all struggle with commitment from our ringers when we have to share responsibilities. High cost of living means that people work multiple jobs so little time is available to devote to activities such as handbells. In a church environment when ringers are volunteers, we must be inclusive to all who want to participate. We cannot afford to turn interested parties away. It’s a delicate balance of maintaining the integrity of the choir while being inclusive to all levels of ability and commitment. The fellowship of making music together is the driving force for many who participate in church choirs.

A segment of Hawai’i’s population is, by nature, transient. Due to military assignments and government contracts, people are always coming and going to and from the islands. We rely on ringers acquired from elsewhere. Because the larger ringing community is so small in general, it is not uncommon to hear from a mainland friend that one of their ringers is moving to Hawai‘i and can we find a ringing home for them. The other side of that coin is that ringers leave to go back to the mainland and we call our mainland friends to return the favor.

Ringers from Hawai‘i may not be able to attend conferences and workshops on the mainland due to the expense of travel. In addition, traveling across up to four time zones means employers may not be willing to accommodate the extra travel time. Moreover, conferences and workshops are rarely held in Hawai‘i due to the same constraints. The result is ringers who are unable to enjoy the fellowship of the larger Handbell Musicians of America (HMA) community, unable to share their talents with their mainland counterparts, and unable to learn from experts in the handbell community.

It is not only the ringers who are hindered by the geographic isolation but also the directors. While there is a dearth of ringers there is more of a paucity of directors. Our long-standing HMA Area 12 Hawai‘i state representative, Karen Carlisle, was leading seven choirs on O‘ahu at one point. Local directors do not have opportunities to learn new skills, connect with other directors, and grow in their art. HMA Area 12 has been diligent in inviting handbell experts to Hawai‘i to lead workshops. While workshops do not occur with the same frequency as on the mainland, we really appreciate the opportunity to reach out to ringers on other islands who come to those workshops. One new friend was so inspired that she came to National Seminar in Anaheim. It would be great to have more such opportunities here in Hawai‘i.

Support from church leadership and congregations can make or break a church handbell choir. As one can imagine, financial and practical support from the church allows the choir to purchase music and equipment as well as perform maintenance on the bells. Churches vary widely whether they pay their handbell directors or not as well as in their budget allowances for bells. Providing for opportunities to play in the worship service are another way that congregations can support their handbell choirs. Some choirs are only allowed to play once or twice a year and not at all during Advent/Christmas or Lent/Easter due to “competing” music ministries, while others enjoy monthly opportunities to play in worship.

Availability of trained professionals for handbell maintenance and availability of replacement parts can be a challenge as getting parts from the mainland or shipping bells for refurbishment can be cost-prohibitive. A last-minute cracked casting or snapped handle can put an end to a performance without a deep bench of replacements from other choirs. Knowing most of the ringers and directors on island can be helpful in that situation.

Ringing in Hawai‘i isn’t all challenges, though; there are many unique rewards as well. While our geography can be a challenge it can also be an advantage. There are increased choices for venues and variation of events because the weather affords us the ability to play outdoor events all year. We do not have to schlep bells and equipment in snow and freezing cold. We do not have to worry about a blizzard cancelling our concerts. Although, we have been known to play outside while it is sprinkling and also with trade winds assisting us on our page turns. There is nothing better than playing outside under a rainbow overlooking the crashing ocean waves.

We enjoy the same fellowship as our mainland counterparts and appreciate the joy of contributing to worship service. Phyllis Haines, handbell director of Kawaiaha‘o church, states that the friendships made through handbells and the fun of making music together is especially rewarding to the church community. Carlisle echoes this sentiment, “the challenges fade when you experience the joy of a group dedicated to the common goal of making music together.” Hawai‘i is a tight-knit community where ‘ohana (family) is very important. In that same vein, church ‘ohana is part of this belief. Church communities support us and welcome us. My quartet has enjoyed ringing at many churches on O‘ahu. We have targeted churches that have bell choirs or have a set of bells without an active choir. We love being welcomed into a church ‘ohana and appreciate the aloha they share with us. We love sharing our passion for handbells with the island and we endeavor to expand the local handbell community even more. With all our love and aloha,
a hui hou (“until we meet again”).

Becky is co-founder of Honolulu Bronze, a community-based handbell ensemble. She started ringing at age five and has rung in church groups in five states as well as several non-profit, auditioned community handbell choirs. Becky has performed solos, duets, and ensembles in multiple churches on O‘ahu and the mainland.  She enjoys teaching and sharing her handbell passion with the church bell choir she directs.  Becky works as a Nurse Practitioner and a Lecturer of nursing at Hawai‘i Pacific University.


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