Some ways to help a new ringer feel at home

by Katie Melton

Katie Melton is a junior at Elon University, with a major in Cinema and Television Arts and a minor in French Studies. She has been ringing handbells for 13 years, starting with children’s choir at Davidson United Methodist Church in Davidson, NC. As she progressed from children’s to middle school to high school and chancel choir, Katie attended numerous festivals in Area 3 on choir trips or with her mother, Laura Blauch. Katie spent her first two years in high school performing with the Charlotte Bronze Handbell Ensemble, and then her second two years with the Queen City Ringers (both auditioned community groups in Charlotte, N.C.). She has also attended four National Seminars, and performed in the National Honors Handbell Ensemble in Stafford, Va., in 2016-2018. As a college student, Katie rings with the chancel bell choir at the Elon Community Church UCC and is exploring handbell solos and duets. Katie attended the 2018 College Ring-In, and she rang with the ACP Bronze Ringers at the American Church in Paris during her semester abroad this past spring. In addition to handbells, she enjoys singing in church choir, writing, editing videos, photography, and thinking of her four cats.

Greetings, fellow bell enthusiasts! Today’s topic: Being Welcoming. It’s worth noting that I myself do not have a director’s perspective on this – I speak as a college-aged ringer who has had the opportunity to experience bells in a variety of settings over the past 13 years, from church groups to community ensembles to area and national events. Here are the ideas I’ve brought together, a mix of what I’ve seen work in the past and elements that I as a new ringer would appreciate seeing in a church handbell choir.

Name Cards On Music Folders

While this wouldn’t necessarily be intuitive for a well-established group (particularly one where the majority of ringers are tight-knit and know each other well), for new ringers it can be quite daunting to join a group and be the only one whose name is specifically introduced. Not only is the new ringer trying to adjust to their position and the feel of the group, matching names to faces tends to be a more stressful process than it ought to: even when the other ringers introduce themselves at first, the names jumble together, and in my experience the next few rehearsals become a sort of detective mission to pick up on the names that were quickly forgotten in the first ten minutes with the group. A nice way to avoid this is to get a piece of sturdy paper, fold it in half, and have each ringer’s name written on both sides. Though the habit would take some getting used to, it makes one aspect of joining the group much easier, and it could be a fun opportunity for a bit of arts and crafts, for those who feel like adding some color or doodles to their name card.

Knowing The New Ringer

This one’s not a new concept, but it’s worth mentioning that the transition for a new ringer will be made much easier by running through their experience and goals before they join rehearsals. Depending on the nature of the group, this could include just getting a general sense of the ringer’s music background and comfort with bells, running through some basic ringing drills, or looking over sections of the repertoire. While it’s not always apparent on the surface level, the occupation, interests, and other instruments played by the new addition can all be key in helping them adjust to their position in the group and make the most of their unique strengths.

Interest Forms

For all members of the group, old and new, having an interest form to fill out at the beginning of each year can be a nice way to get a feel of the group and have an idea of what each person hopes to achieve moving forward. Position preferences, ideas for songs or activities, comfort with difficulty of music, reason (in either a multiple choice or free response format)—anything that can help create a sense of the group dynamic and allow each individual to give their input.

Exchanging Contacts

From personal experience, it makes a big difference when you’re new to a group and the only way you have to ask about the group, music, etc., is by emailing the director. Even if the director is typically busy and might not want to exchange messages via text or social media, it’s nice to create a space where ringers are encouraged to share contact information, so new ringers don’t feel excluded from the regular flow of the choir. If emails are only reserved for important dates or links and the choir usually uses Messenger, GroupMe, etc., for casual exchanges, then get the new ringer connected to at least one person who can add them in and keep them in the loop. Being open with contact info doesn’t just benefit new ringers—ringers who are less outgoing can also find it hard to feel as connected to the other members, so this makes it easier to open those paths of communication.

Knowing The Area

The area where the ringing choir is based can determine what sort of new ringers could be expected to turn up. For me, I’m currently ringing at a community church located right by my university. So, it’s common to have a few university students or faculty ringing in the group. Since we know what to expect, I’m currently working with my director to propose a handbell workshop during the winter term where any and all students at the university are welcome to come learn what handbells are and learn the basics. It also helps to know what other ringing groups are in the area, both church and community—I know I’ve seen instances where communication between various groups has led to new ringers being able to choose which group works best for them, and as long as it’s made clear it’s not a competition, the awareness helps everyone. As a church group, we also have the ability to include rehearsal times in the bulletin, ask for a mention to be made during the service, or include bells in small ways in worship—maybe a small transitional change ringing pattern or accompanying the hymns.

Social Media

For those who don’t navigate between the various social media platforms on a regular basis, I think the idea of establishing a “social media presence” can be quite daunting. While social media can be a carefully crafted art, at the base it’s really just a way to share an individual or group’s identity. If a group is looking to welcome in new ringers, it can be beneficial to have a page on one or more platforms (Facebook, Instagram, maybe even Snapchat or Twitter) to share with them. This could include videos of performances, silly/casual videos or photos from rehearsals, selfies from events, anything that represents the group. The videos don’t need to be professionally framed, the photos don’t need perfect exposure—it’s all about showing the personality of the ringing choir, so people outside the group can get an idea of what you’re about.

Sharing Concerts and Videos

Regardless of the skill level of the group, it can be nice for the ringers to be aware of other groups in the area so they can attend other handbell concerts, maybe as a whole group or just a few individuals. Even if it’s not a formal group activity, it can create bonds and inspire a greater passion for handbells. If the group has an easy way of communicating casually—a group on Messenger, Snapchat, GroupMe, iMessage, etc.—then it’s easy to encourage everyone to share events or cool music- and bell-related videos they find throughout the week. The exact method used will depend on what works best for the group, but in general the platforms I’ve mentioned are convenient ways to communicate as a group, and all but Snapchat are available on computers as well as mobile devices.

Sharing With The Group

Since handbells require connection and a united focus within the group, I’ve found that some sort of sharing time can help ringers feel more connected to the people they’re making music with. This can be prayer concerns, it can just be a prayer led by one member of the group to center everyone, or it could be a time at the beginning or end of rehearsal when each person can share something good they’ve seen in their day. At my church’s Vacation Bible School this past summer we encouraged each child to share a God Sighting in their day (a rainbow, someone being helpful, anything positive); this can work just as well for adults as it does for kids.

Beginning or Advanced Ringers

One issue I’ve noticed with groups wanting to welcome new ringers is the issue of varying skill levels. Of course a group wants to encourage anyone interested to join, but a serious range in experience can be difficult to work with. I’ve played in churches where we’ve had multiple bell sets, and in that case having the new ringer shadow someone with more experience or an easier part is a good solution. For churches that don’t have that option, I’ve seen that adding accompanying instruments to a piece of music can be a good way to invite interested musicians in who aren’t quite ready to pick up bells and play with the group. I remember quite well the time I was invited to play egg shakers with my church’s chancel bell choir when they played Cathy Moklebust’s “Sherekea Usafari.” No, I wasn’t ringing with the group, but I still felt like a part of the musical experience. If there’s an issue with room or skill level, introducing other instruments allows people to still feel included in the musical experience. It’s also not uncommon to have ringers who have more experience than the skill level the group plays at, and allowing opportunities for solo or small ensemble pieces can help them feel fulfilled as well.So, these are some of my ideas for how a group can create a more welcoming space for all ringers. The most important steps are opening up communication, allowing each ringer to be their own person while also feeling connected, and encouraging passion for the instrument and music. Luckily HMA offers national and area events, as well as contact information for board members who can help provide resources and information for specific areas, so there’s always a way to look into opportunities and ideas for building and strengthening our bell choirs. Happy ringing, everyone!

Greetings, fellow bell enthusiasts! Today’s topic: Being Welcoming. It’s worth noting that I myself do not have a director’s perspective on this – I speak as a college-aged ringer who has had the opportunity to experience bells in a variety of settings over the past 13 years, from church groups to community ensembles to area and national events. Here are the ideas I’ve brought together, a mix of what I’ve seen work in the past and elements that I as a new ringer would appreciate seeing in a church handbell choir.

Name Cards On Music Folders

While this wouldn’t necessarily be intuitive for a well-established group (particularly one where the majority of ringers are tight-knit and know each other well), for new ringers it can be quite daunting to join a group and be the only one whose name is specifically introduced. Not only is the new ringer trying to adjust to their position and the feel of the group, matching names to faces tends to be a more stressful process than it ought to: even when the other ringers introduce themselves at first, the names jumble together, and in my experience the next few rehearsals become a sort of detective mission to pick up on the names that were quickly forgotten in the first ten minutes with the group. A nice way to avoid this is to get a piece of sturdy paper, fold it in half, and have each ringer’s name written on both sides. Though the habit would take some getting used to, it makes one aspect of joining the group much easier, and it could be a fun opportunity for a bit of arts and crafts, for those who feel like adding some color or doodles to their name card.

Knowing The New Ringer

This one’s not a new concept, but it’s worth mentioning that the transition for a new ringer will be made much easier by running through their experience and goals before they join rehearsals. Depending on the nature of the group, this could include just getting a general sense of the ringer’s music background and comfort with bells, running through some basic ringing drills, or looking over sections of the repertoire. While it’s not always apparent on the surface level, the occupation, interests, and other instruments played by the new addition can all be key in helping them adjust to their position in the group and make the most of their unique strengths.

Interest Forms

For all members of the group, old and new, having an interest form to fill out at the beginning of each year can be a nice way to get a feel of the group and have an idea of what each person hopes to achieve moving forward. Position preferences, ideas for songs or activities, comfort with difficulty of music, reason (in either a multiple choice or free response format)—anything that can help create a sense of the group dynamic and allow each individual to give their input.

Exchanging Contacts

From personal experience, it makes a big difference when you’re new to a group and the only way you have to ask about the group, music, etc., is by emailing the director. Even if the director is typically busy and might not want to exchange messages via text or social media, it’s nice to create a space where ringers are encouraged to share contact information, so new ringers don’t feel excluded from the regular flow of the choir. If emails are only reserved for important dates or links and the choir usually uses Messenger, GroupMe, etc., for casual exchanges, then get the new ringer connected to at least one person who can add them in and keep them in the loop. Being open with contact info doesn’t just benefit new ringers—ringers who are less outgoing can also find it hard to feel as connected to the other members, so this makes it easier to open those paths of communication.

Knowing The Area

The area where the ringing choir is based can determine what sort of new ringers could be expected to turn up. For me, I’m currently ringing at a community church located right by my university. So, it’s common to have a few university students or faculty ringing in the group. Since we know what to expect, I’m currently working with my director to propose a handbell workshop during the winter term where any and all students at the university are welcome to come learn what handbells are and learn the basics. It also helps to know what other ringing groups are in the area, both church and community—I know I’ve seen instances where communication between various groups has led to new ringers being able to choose which group works best for them, and as long as it’s made clear it’s not a competition, the awareness helps everyone. As a church group, we also have the ability to include rehearsal times in the bulletin, ask for a mention to be made during the service, or include bells in small ways in worship—maybe a small transitional change ringing pattern or accompanying the hymns.

Social Media

For those who don’t navigate between the various social media platforms on a regular basis, I think the idea of establishing a “social media presence” can be quite daunting. While social media can be a carefully crafted art, at the base it’s really just a way to share an individual or group’s identity. If a group is looking to welcome in new ringers, it can be beneficial to have a page on one or more platforms (Facebook, Instagram, maybe even Snapchat or Twitter) to share with them. This could include videos of performances, silly/casual videos or photos from rehearsals, selfies from events, anything that represents the group. The videos don’t need to be professionally framed, the photos don’t need perfect exposure—it’s all about showing the personality of the ringing choir, so people outside the group can get an idea of what you’re about.

Sharing Concerts and Videos

Regardless of the skill level of the group, it can be nice for the ringers to be aware of other groups in the area so they can attend other handbell concerts, maybe as a whole group or just a few individuals. Even if it’s not a formal group activity, it can create bonds and inspire a greater passion for handbells. If the group has an easy way of communicating casually—a group on Messenger, Snapchat, GroupMe, iMessage, etc.—then it’s easy to encourage everyone to share events or cool music- and bell-related videos they find throughout the week. The exact method used will depend on what works best for the group, but in general the platforms I’ve mentioned are convenient ways to communicate as a group, and all but Snapchat are available on computers as well as mobile devices.

Sharing With The Group

Since handbells require connection and a united focus within the group, I’ve found that some sort of sharing time can help ringers feel more connected to the people they’re making music with. This can be prayer concerns, it can just be a prayer led by one member of the group to center everyone, or it could be a time at the beginning or end of rehearsal when each person can share something good they’ve seen in their day. At my church’s Vacation Bible School this past summer we encouraged each child to share a God Sighting in their day (a rainbow, someone being helpful, anything positive); this can work just as well for adults as it does for kids.

Beginning or Advanced Ringers

One issue I’ve noticed with groups wanting to welcome new ringers is the issue of varying skill levels. Of course a group wants to encourage anyone interested to join, but a serious range in experience can be difficult to work with. I’ve played in churches where we’ve had multiple bell sets, and in that case having the new ringer shadow someone with more experience or an easier part is a good solution. For churches that don’t have that option, I’ve seen that adding accompanying instruments to a piece of music can be a good way to invite interested musicians in who aren’t quite ready to pick up bells and play with the group. I remember quite well the time I was invited to play egg shakers with my church’s chancel bell choir when they played Cathy Moklebust’s “Sherekea Usafari.” No, I wasn’t ringing with the group, but I still felt like a part of the musical experience. If there’s an issue with room or skill level, introducing other instruments allows people to still feel included in the musical experience. It’s also not uncommon to have ringers who have more experience than the skill level the group plays at, and allowing opportunities for solo or small ensemble pieces can help them feel fulfilled as well.So, these are some of my ideas for how a group can create a more welcoming space for all ringers. The most important steps are opening up communication, allowing each ringer to be their own person while also feeling connected, and encouraging passion for the instrument and music. Luckily HMA offers national and area events, as well as contact information for board members who can help provide resources and information for specific areas, so there’s always a way to look into opportunities and ideas for building and strengthening our bell choirs. Happy ringing, everyone!

Katie Melton is a junior at Elon University, with a major in Cinema and Television Arts and a minor in French Studies. She has been ringing handbells for 13 years, starting with children’s choir at Davidson United Methodist Church in Davidson, NC. As she progressed from children’s to middle school to high school and chancel choir, Katie attended numerous festivals in Area 3 on choir trips or with her mother, Laura Blauch. Katie spent her first two years in high school performing with the Charlotte Bronze Handbell Ensemble, and then her second two years with the Queen City Ringers (both auditioned community groups in Charlotte, N.C.). She has also attended four National Seminars, and performed in the National Honors Handbell Ensemble in Stafford, Va., in 2016-2018. As a college student, Katie rings with the chancel bell choir at the Elon Community Church UCC and is exploring handbell solos and duets. Katie attended the 2018 College Ring-In, and she rang with the ACP Bronze Ringers at the American Church in Paris during her semester abroad this past spring. In addition to handbells, she enjoys singing in church choir, writing, editing videos, photography, and thinking of her four cats.