I invited folks to contribute to a “free for all” column, to share what is currently on their minds. Not surprisingly, COVID is still on the minds of many as the new fall schedule kicks off. The good news is that musicians are finding ways to rise above the challenges of the pandemic. Thank you to our contributors for sharing their thoughts.

Coordinated by Stephanie Wiltse


Erin Gerecke, Indianapolis, Indiana

Erin is a Research Analyst at Indiana University and rings in Joyful Sound of Indianapolis.


Eileen Laurence, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Eileen retired from an active program in Katonah, New York. She now directs Willow Bells in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.


Beth Plohr McFarland, Mundelein, Illinois

Beth directs in the northern suburbs of Chicago.


Catherine McMichael, Saginaw, Michigan

Catherine is a performer, composer, and arranger, and directs Bells on High at Saginaw First United Methodist Church.


Nancy Youngman, Lincoln, Nebraska
Nancy directs Bell-issimo Community Handbell Choir, and is Nebraska State Chair, HMA Area 8.

Erin: I’m in the planning stages of trying to create something new in my area—sort of a handbell ambassador and seeding program to create nimble, community-centered programs featuring handbells. I haven’t seen any other models like this. I’d be interested in more discussion of alternatives to traditional choirs to help bring more people of all ages to the instrument.

Eileen: “Where there’s a Heart, there’s a Solution”. Willow Bells, a 10-person handbell ensemble at the Willow Valley Community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was given permission to continue rehearsing throughout the entire COVID pandemic. We had a large room that supported social distancing, and we wore masks and gloves. Everybody wanted to continue ringing because, frankly, we were the only game in town for musicians living here—the Chorale and the Silver and Gold Band were both shut down. Using this time, we shepherded two videotaped projects to the finish: a Christmas Carol program that was broadcast in-house to all of our residents, and a Spring Concert, also broadcast in-house. The Christmas Carols were easy, but the Spring Concert was more diverse and interesting for us.

The entire group has 10 ringers. A few are retired professional musicians; others, amateurs. We invited two resident solo instrumentalists to help us out and, following CDC guidelines, recorded a 55-minute program in sections, starting with the largest and going down to the smallest ensemble. The entire recording session was a fat two hours with musicians leaving the space after their music was captured. We used the concert hall facility here and the engineers edited the program into concert order in their studio.

These ringers, ranging from 70 to 90 years of age, worked so very hard to learn their music. They were acutely aware that the recording would capture everything for posterity and shouldered their responsibility with courage, determination, and good will. The more experienced helped those less so with kindness and sensitivity.

We played two Arnold Sherman compositions, Prayer and Grazioso, both of which encouraged them to expand their comfort zones. We were grateful for the arrangers who had stepped up to the plate to put out music that could be rung by four to six ringers. We were fortunate to be able to use a fine piano. The violinist and her guitar-playing husband were super creative in adding notes to some of the handbell music, as well as playing their own set: the Massenet Meditation and Potstock Souvenir de Sarasate. Keeping in mind that our potential audience of about 2400 retirees may enjoy music but were certainly not handbell aficionados, we varied the sounds by adding the piano, guitar, and violin. We even paid attention to the visuals by changing outfits between sets.

We called the program Show Me the Way, based on the lyrics of the closing song, “Down to the River to Pray,” arranged by Anna Laura Page. That music was enhanced with the addition of the violin and guitar and, while listening, the viewers saw a series of about eight river pictures that my husband had taken over the years. The first one was of the two of us sitting on the banks of the Ganges River in India. Eight more from our personal collection followed by more from a memory stick created by still another resident here at Willow Valley.

Two weeks later, we all had a little picnic outside (with lots of social distancing) and then viewed the broadcast in a large room together. We have taken the summer off and are looking forward to coming together once more in September. The COVID-19 pandemic gave us a challenge which we accepted with energy and heart.

Beth: The church council decided to put through the following restrictions to keep everyone safe:

All participants must be masked (face mask or bell cover for instruments).

Rehearsal must not last more than 50 minutes.

All participants must be separated by three to six feet during rehearsals and worship.

Ensembles must be at least 16 feet from the congregation during worship.

All musicians must provide proof of their vaccination in order to participate. (I’m praying that all of my ringers are vaxed!)

I learned after speaking to our Head of Music that these restrictions are mainly for the vocal choir and instrumentalist (brass and woodwinds). It’s not as difficult for bells—we are considered a “safe” group and could have longer rehearsals if needed, and also could be a bit closer so as to use our handbell tables.

Catherine: What I Learned about Bells During the Pandemic:

Bells on High of Saginaw, Michigan, is a 13 member (14, with director), five octave, Level 4 handbell choir that has been in continuous existence since the ‘70s. I’ve directed BOH for 22 years; never has there been a more devoted or passionate group for meeting challenges, creating beautiful music, and fostering fellowship.

We gave our annual Lenten Concert on March 15, 2020, to an empty sanctuary (and to the universe through YouTube) because the world had shut down.

We hoped to play Easter. We didn’t.

In July 2020, after four months of silence, I looked at our rehearsal room. It was a double room with a moveable wall between. What if we opened up that wall and spaced tables and played in a circle? We checked with our open-minded and adventurous minister, Pastor Amy Terhune, who said, “Sure! Go for it! You’re masked and gloved and six feet apart. Why not?” One of our ringers made custom masks for all of us, with music notes on the cloth. We were ready to give it a try, no matter how many or few could come.

What I learned:

Our ringers were still excited to make music.

We loved playing in a circle.

We had a lot of good music in our file cabinets that hadn’t seen the light of day in decades.

We could have just as much fun ringing with six or seven ringers as with 13.

We could be flexible and play different positions as needed.

Even un-complicated music has its challenges, and its beauty, and its worthiness to be played.

Preparation at home made it possible to be performance- and recording-ready in 20 minutes of rehearsal.

We are all better ringers now, even though the music we played was not as complex.

We’ve learned to be versatile.

How did we do it?

I chose rehearsal dates for every other week through the summer and sent out a “Ringer Round-up” e-mail the week before each rehearsal asking people to let me know by Sunday afternoon if they would be there.

Depending on numbers, I’d trawl our file cabinets for music that fit. If necessary, I’d add notes for an additional position or two. (If I couldn’t do that, we have two sets of bells so I’d have that extra person double a position at a different table.) I’d choose three or four short pieces for each rehearsal. I’d scan the music and send it as a PDF by Sunday evening to all who would be attending, along with position assignments. Everyone printed out and marked their music, ready to rehearse the following Thursday.

We’d color-match clothing so that we would look good for the video.

Our minister would come in and video us right there in the rehearsal room then upload the videos to be included in our on-line worship service.

When September came, we began rehearsing the first three weeks of every month. We moved into permanent positions in the sanctuary, taking over the Chancel Choir space, since singing was not in the picture. Since we had several consecutive weeks of rehearsal now, I could choose longer or more involved pieces that might take more than one week to perfect. But we were still recording at least one piece every single week to upload for worship.

We even managed to be part of a three-part, three-hour Christmas video presentation by the Saginaw Choral Society, ringing several numbers in each segment.

We’re STILL in a circle and loving it—we’ve been ringing this way ever since.

Before the pandemic, I was deeply worried about losing some ringers to moves away from Saginaw, as well as how on earth I’d maintain ringing quality at the same level where we had been. Perhaps things will change to be more like it was, but I’ve learned I don’t need 13 ringers to be happy. I don’t need to conduct really hard music to feel a sense of satisfaction and achievement. Different challenges were presented and were met. The greatest challenge was simply survival. Well, we have survived—and thrived!

In conclusion, we learned that neither snow, nor rain, nor heat (it was darn hot in our bell room in the summer!), nor gloom of night, nor COVID-19 could keep us from ringing our bells.

Ring on!

Nancy: Here’s my “talk show free-for-all”: I have become very concerned for my fellow handbell directors as we wade through this pandemic. I just learned of another church that has decided to discontinue its bell choir—the second one in our city in the past few months. I’m afraid the pandemic and the resulting slowing down or changing of how we have done things has become an excuse for some churches to throw the program out. In one church, the new music director “doesn’t like bells.” In the other, “maybe someday we’ll start it up again.” And in both churches, they had full, involved handbell choirs. My question is: how can we protect our programs, both during this time, but also when the church hires a new minister or director of music? It obviously doesn’t seem to be enough to have a good program with dedicated ringers and a congregation who loves the bells.

 

Erin: I’m in the planning stages of trying to create something new in my area—sort of a handbell ambassador and seeding program to create nimble, community-centered programs featuring handbells. I haven’t seen any other models like this. I’d be interested in more discussion of alternatives to traditional choirs to help bring more people of all ages to the instrument.

Eileen: “Where there’s a Heart, there’s a Solution”. Willow Bells, a 10-person handbell ensemble at the Willow Valley Community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was given permission to continue rehearsing throughout the entire COVID pandemic. We had a large room that supported social distancing, and we wore masks and gloves. Everybody wanted to continue ringing because, frankly, we were the only game in town for musicians living here—the Chorale and the Silver and Gold Band were both shut down. Using this time, we shepherded two videotaped projects to the finish: a Christmas Carol program that was broadcast in-house to all of our residents, and a Spring Concert, also broadcast in-house. The Christmas Carols were easy, but the Spring Concert was more diverse and interesting for us.

The entire group has 10 ringers. A few are retired professional musicians; others, amateurs. We invited two resident solo instrumentalists to help us out and, following CDC guidelines, recorded a 55-minute program in sections, starting with the largest and going down to the smallest ensemble. The entire recording session was a fat two hours with musicians leaving the space after their music was captured. We used the concert hall facility here and the engineers edited the program into concert order in their studio.

These ringers, ranging from 70 to 90 years of age, worked so very hard to learn their music. They were acutely aware that the recording would capture everything for posterity and shouldered their responsibility with courage, determination, and good will. The more experienced helped those less so with kindness and sensitivity.

We played two Arnold Sherman compositions, Prayer and Grazioso, both of which encouraged them to expand their comfort zones. We were grateful for the arrangers who had stepped up to the plate to put out music that could be rung by four to six ringers. We were fortunate to be able to use a fine piano. The violinist and her guitar-playing husband were super creative in adding notes to some of the handbell music, as well as playing their own set: the Massenet Meditation and Potstock Souvenir de Sarasate. Keeping in mind that our potential audience of about 2400 retirees may enjoy music but were certainly not handbell aficionados, we varied the sounds by adding the piano, guitar, and violin. We even paid attention to the visuals by changing outfits between sets.

We called the program Show Me the Way, based on the lyrics of the closing song, “Down to the River to Pray,” arranged by Anna Laura Page. That music was enhanced with the addition of the violin and guitar and, while listening, the viewers saw a series of about eight river pictures that my husband had taken over the years. The first one was of the two of us sitting on the banks of the Ganges River in India. Eight more from our personal collection followed by more from a memory stick created by still another resident here at Willow Valley.

Two weeks later, we all had a little picnic outside (with lots of social distancing) and then viewed the broadcast in a large room together. We have taken the summer off and are looking forward to coming together once more in September. The COVID-19 pandemic gave us a challenge which we accepted with energy and heart.

Beth: The church council decided to put through the following restrictions to keep everyone safe:

All participants must be masked (face mask or bell cover for instruments).

Rehearsal must not last more than 50 minutes.

All participants must be separated by three to six feet during rehearsals and worship.

Ensembles must be at least 16 feet from the congregation during worship.

All musicians must provide proof of their vaccination in order to participate. (I’m praying that all of my ringers are vaxed!)

I learned after speaking to our Head of Music that these restrictions are mainly for the vocal choir and instrumentalist (brass and woodwinds). It’s not as difficult for bells—we are considered a “safe” group and could have longer rehearsals if needed, and also could be a bit closer so as to use our handbell tables.

Catherine: What I Learned about Bells During the Pandemic:

Bells on High of Saginaw, Michigan, is a 13 member (14, with director), five octave, Level 4 handbell choir that has been in continuous existence since the ‘70s. I’ve directed BOH for 22 years; never has there been a more devoted or passionate group for meeting challenges, creating beautiful music, and fostering fellowship.

We gave our annual Lenten Concert on March 15, 2020, to an empty sanctuary (and to the universe through YouTube) because the world had shut down.

We hoped to play Easter. We didn’t.

In July 2020, after four months of silence, I looked at our rehearsal room. It was a double room with a moveable wall between. What if we opened up that wall and spaced tables and played in a circle? We checked with our open-minded and adventurous minister, Pastor Amy Terhune, who said, “Sure! Go for it! You’re masked and gloved and six feet apart. Why not?” One of our ringers made custom masks for all of us, with music notes on the cloth. We were ready to give it a try, no matter how many or few could come.

What I learned:

Our ringers were still excited to make music.

We loved playing in a circle.

We had a lot of good music in our file cabinets that hadn’t seen the light of day in decades.

We could have just as much fun ringing with six or seven ringers as with 13.

We could be flexible and play different positions as needed.

Even un-complicated music has its challenges, and its beauty, and its worthiness to be played.

Preparation at home made it possible to be performance- and recording-ready in 20 minutes of rehearsal.

We are all better ringers now, even though the music we played was not as complex.

We’ve learned to be versatile.

How did we do it?

I chose rehearsal dates for every other week through the summer and sent out a “Ringer Round-up” e-mail the week before each rehearsal asking people to let me know by Sunday afternoon if they would be there.

Depending on numbers, I’d trawl our file cabinets for music that fit. If necessary, I’d add notes for an additional position or two. (If I couldn’t do that, we have two sets of bells so I’d have that extra person double a position at a different table.) I’d choose three or four short pieces for each rehearsal. I’d scan the music and send it as a PDF by Sunday evening to all who would be attending, along with position assignments. Everyone printed out and marked their music, ready to rehearse the following Thursday.

We’d color-match clothing so that we would look good for the video.

Our minister would come in and video us right there in the rehearsal room then upload the videos to be included in our on-line worship service.

When September came, we began rehearsing the first three weeks of every month. We moved into permanent positions in the sanctuary, taking over the Chancel Choir space, since singing was not in the picture. Since we had several consecutive weeks of rehearsal now, I could choose longer or more involved pieces that might take more than one week to perfect. But we were still recording at least one piece every single week to upload for worship.

We even managed to be part of a three-part, three-hour Christmas video presentation by the Saginaw Choral Society, ringing several numbers in each segment.

We’re STILL in a circle and loving it—we’ve been ringing this way ever since.

Before the pandemic, I was deeply worried about losing some ringers to moves away from Saginaw, as well as how on earth I’d maintain ringing quality at the same level where we had been. Perhaps things will change to be more like it was, but I’ve learned I don’t need 13 ringers to be happy. I don’t need to conduct really hard music to feel a sense of satisfaction and achievement. Different challenges were presented and were met. The greatest challenge was simply survival. Well, we have survived—and thrived!

In conclusion, we learned that neither snow, nor rain, nor heat (it was darn hot in our bell room in the summer!), nor gloom of night, nor COVID-19 could keep us from ringing our bells.

Ring on!

Nancy: Here’s my “talk show free-for-all”: I have become very concerned for my fellow handbell directors as we wade through this pandemic. I just learned of another church that has decided to discontinue its bell choir—the second one in our city in the past few months. I’m afraid the pandemic and the resulting slowing down or changing of how we have done things has become an excuse for some churches to throw the program out. In one church, the new music director “doesn’t like bells.” In the other, “maybe someday we’ll start it up again.” And in both churches, they had full, involved handbell choirs. My question is: how can we protect our programs, both during this time, but also when the church hires a new minister or director of music? It obviously doesn’t seem to be enough to have a good program with dedicated ringers and a congregation who loves the bells.

 


Erin Gerecke, Indianapolis, Indiana

Erin is a Research Analyst at Indiana University and rings in Joyful Sound of Indianapolis.


Eileen Laurence, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Eileen retired from an active program in Katonah, New York. She now directs Willow Bells in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.


Beth Plohr McFarland, Mundelein, Illinois

Beth directs in the northern suburbs of Chicago.


Catherine McMichael, Saginaw, Michigan

Catherine is a performer, composer, and arranger, and directs Bells on High at Saginaw First United Methodist Church.


Nancy Youngman, Lincoln, Nebraska
Nancy directs Bell-issimo Community Handbell Choir, and is Nebraska State Chair, HMA Area 8.