How to Pull Off a Four-City Tour in Uncertain COVID Times

by James Meredity

One of the San Francisco Bay Area’s most well-rounded musicians, James Meredith conducts the country’s acclaimed Sonos Handbell Ensemble. A native of North Carolina, Mr. Meredith received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Master of Fine Arts degree from Tulane University. As a solo pianist, vocal and instrumental accompanist, and conductor in America, Europe, and Asia, his work has brought him into contact with such artists as Elly Ameling, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Olivia Stapp, Frederica von Stade, Eleanor Steber, Evelyn Lear, Gerald Moore, and Dalton Baldwin, whose assistant he has been in summer masterclasses at the French Conservatory in Nice. He is on the faculty of the renowned Young Musicians Choral Orchestra Program where he is Director of Vocal Studies teaching voice and piano.

The short story is: Sonos Handbell Ensemble began the seven-day, 1752 mile, four-city tour, From Steeple to Steppe on July 9th at Grace Lutheran Church in Palo Alto, California, and ended with a performance at the Handbell Musicians of America National Seminar on July 15th in Glendale, Arizona. How it all happened is a much longer story.

In the fall of 2020, Sonos decided to apply for one of the main concerts at the 2021 National Seminar in Phoenix. We were notified in mid-October that we were accepted. With the pandemic in full swing there was no guarantee that the seminar would even be able to take place. Anyone involved with handbells understands that flexibility is a trait one needs in abundance in this field.

Sonos is a professional ensemble in that our players are paid for rehearsals, concerts, and days on tour. We are booked on national tours by our agent, Knudsen Productions, and internationally (in Japan with a Japanese agency) generally one to two years in advance. We also, from time to time, arrange some touring through our own networks, which is what we did for this tour.

Sonos in concert at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Dana Point, California.

Once we have a time frame set, the program repertoire is decided and we announce it to our pool of players. Most of our players come from the San Francisco Bay Area, but since some live in other parts of the country, rehearsals are weekends, Saturdays and Sundays, four to six hours each. We set up an online Doodle poll to see who can make the tour dates and what weekends are available for rehearsals. Then I have to decide how many players and rehearsals would be needed to master the chosen repertoire.

In our 31-year history, this program, From Steeple to Steppe, was probably the most difficult we have done, both musically and technically. A wide range of works, from Baroque to Contemporary, challenged each player to understand the different styles involved: three-hundred-year-old Baroque ornamentation from both Spain and Germany (Scarlatti sonata and Bach chorale prelude) to contemporary (3 Mostly Etudes) where the ink was barely dry before rehearsals began.

Next, do all the arrangements. The goal was to illustrate the wide range of timbres, textures, and techniques that bells and chimes are capable of in a travelogue from Portugal to Russia through the music of various cultures. Only four of the nine pieces in the 60-minute program had been previously arranged. The Bartok Roumanian Dances and the Borodin Polovtsian Dances No. 17 had long been on my list to arrange. The next months were spent finishing the arrangements and writing 3 Mostly Etudes, a new work for bells and chimes. Sonos has played at several national festivals, each time bringing a newly composed work to point to the future and encourage composers to explore the potential of the medium.

Repertoire was finalized and in the hands of Marquise Usher to do the breakdowns and assignments, a herculean task which can make or break a performance. Twelve players committed to the tour and 23 rehearsals were scheduled based on the Doodle poll. Because of the pandemic, the first 13 rehearsals were virtual. We considered various platforms and settled on Zoom. All platforms had latency issues so everyone was muted when they played, unmuting for discussions. All the music was in Finale and the scores were played back with click tracks to play to so we could do multiple run-throughs at various speeds.

Although no true ensemble could be achieved, it allowed the players to familiarize themselves with the notes, tempo, and general outline of the pieces and to try out the breakdowns and assignments. What was hard to do was to know how the people on either side of you, elbow-to-elbow, would be playing their part. Several of the players organized virtual sectional rehearsals on their own, with varying degrees of success, using programs such as JamKazam and Jamulus. Additional phone calls between players helped sort out other sticky points.

Sonos relaxing and rejoicing with friends and supporters after their National Seminar concert.

Of the 13 virtual rehearsals beginning the end of January, only seven had all 12 players present; we were missing one or two players each session. In-person rehearsals began the first week in May after everyone had completed vaccination protocols. Now the real work began—to master the technical aspects and beyond that, to make music.

The first two in-person rehearsals are usually spent playing through each piece to tweak the breakdowns and assignments: what has to be adjusted; “I can’t play that bell there, who is free to do it?”; determining duplicate or triplicate bells to use; “where are we going to put it on the table so we both can reach it?”; and a multitude of other logistical issues.

Additionally, the setup time between pieces had to be accounted for in the 60-minute time limit required for the concert. This could not be accurately determined until we had in-person rehearsals. As soon as this approximate timing was known I chose the historical media, wrote the texts, and recorded the voice-overs, all of which was projected on a screen as the players were setting up for the next piece on the program.

There was a further complication: of the scheduled ten in-person rehearsals, only four would have all 12 players present. This was a nightmare.

While rehearsals were in progress, all the other aspects of the tour had to be arranged. First we had to find venues to play in. We had the HMA venue in Glendale set first. Calling on our national contacts in the handbell world, it took four months to finalize the other three venues in Palo Alto and Dana Point in California, and Las Vegas in Nevada. For the majority of touring that Sonos does around the world, we are usually booked on a concert series and the presenters pay for housing in hotels. This is ideal, but when we organize a tour ourselves and are not being paid a fee, we often ask for homestays. Given the pandemic, we decided homestays would not be feasible. Fortunately, we were able to arrange some housing with family and friends in southern California and timeshares at a hotel in Las Vegas. All of the transportation and housing issues—plus who’s allergic to what animals and foods—were handled with great skill by our very capable equipment manager, Tessique Houston.

In these pandemic times there is a lot of disorientation. We all yearn to return to normal. Let’s let go of the old normal and use the new ways we have learned to go forward. This yearning to push the handbell medium in new directions is only to fulfill the potential for the art. This tour cost Sonos $22,000, so we need to benefit from the process until we can resume our usual touring from which we derive our income. At this point that seems to be at least two years away.

All of this would not have been possible without the contribution of every member on the Sonos team. It is truly a national ensemble with two players driving or flying to rehearsals in Oakland from southern California, two more driving from eastern California and Reno, Nevada, and two others flying in from the east coast. They all understand the issues that faced us and they gave their all to meet them. Making a four-concert tour during COVID times, playing the most difficult music in our 31-year career, ending in a performance for our most knowledgeable peers, with only four rehearsals all together is insane. But to be committed to handbells requires at least a soupçon of insanity!

The short story is: Sonos Handbell Ensemble began the seven-day, 1752 mile, four-city tour, From Steeple to Steppe on July 9th at Grace Lutheran Church in Palo Alto, California, and ended with a performance at the Handbell Musicians of America National Seminar on July 15th in Glendale, Arizona. How it all happened is a much longer story.

In the fall of 2020, Sonos decided to apply for one of the main concerts at the 2021 National Seminar in Phoenix. We were notified in mid-October that we were accepted. With the pandemic in full swing there was no guarantee that the seminar would even be able to take place. Anyone involved with handbells understands that flexibility is a trait one needs in abundance in this field.

Sonos is a professional ensemble in that our players are paid for rehearsals, concerts, and days on tour. We are booked on national tours by our agent, Knudsen Productions, and internationally (in Japan with a Japanese agency) generally one to two years in advance. We also, from time to time, arrange some touring through our own networks, which is what we did for this tour.

Sonos in concert at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Dana Point, California.

Once we have a time frame set, the program repertoire is decided and we announce it to our pool of players. Most of our players come from the San Francisco Bay Area, but since some live in other parts of the country, rehearsals are weekends, Saturdays and Sundays, four to six hours each. We set up an online Doodle poll to see who can make the tour dates and what weekends are available for rehearsals. Then I have to decide how many players and rehearsals would be needed to master the chosen repertoire.

In our 31-year history, this program, From Steeple to Steppe, was probably the most difficult we have done, both musically and technically. A wide range of works, from Baroque to Contemporary, challenged each player to understand the different styles involved: three-hundred-year-old Baroque ornamentation from both Spain and Germany (Scarlatti sonata and Bach chorale prelude) to contemporary (3 Mostly Etudes) where the ink was barely dry before rehearsals began.

Next, do all the arrangements. The goal was to illustrate the wide range of timbres, textures, and techniques that bells and chimes are capable of in a travelogue from Portugal to Russia through the music of various cultures. Only four of the nine pieces in the 60-minute program had been previously arranged. The Bartok Roumanian Dances and the Borodin Polovtsian Dances No. 17 had long been on my list to arrange. The next months were spent finishing the arrangements and writing 3 Mostly Etudes, a new work for bells and chimes. Sonos has played at several national festivals, each time bringing a newly composed work to point to the future and encourage composers to explore the potential of the medium.

Repertoire was finalized and in the hands of Marquise Usher to do the breakdowns and assignments, a herculean task which can make or break a performance. Twelve players committed to the tour and 23 rehearsals were scheduled based on the Doodle poll. Because of the pandemic, the first 13 rehearsals were virtual. We considered various platforms and settled on Zoom. All platforms had latency issues so everyone was muted when they played, unmuting for discussions. All the music was in Finale and the scores were played back with click tracks to play to so we could do multiple run-throughs at various speeds.

Although no true ensemble could be achieved, it allowed the players to familiarize themselves with the notes, tempo, and general outline of the pieces and to try out the breakdowns and assignments. What was hard to do was to know how the people on either side of you, elbow-to-elbow, would be playing their part. Several of the players organized virtual sectional rehearsals on their own, with varying degrees of success, using programs such as JamKazam and Jamulus. Additional phone calls between players helped sort out other sticky points.

Sonos relaxing and rejoicing with friends and supporters after their National Seminar concert.

Of the 13 virtual rehearsals beginning the end of January, only seven had all 12 players present; we were missing one or two players each session. In-person rehearsals began the first week in May after everyone had completed vaccination protocols. Now the real work began—to master the technical aspects and beyond that, to make music.

The first two in-person rehearsals are usually spent playing through each piece to tweak the breakdowns and assignments: what has to be adjusted; “I can’t play that bell there, who is free to do it?”; determining duplicate or triplicate bells to use; “where are we going to put it on the table so we both can reach it?”; and a multitude of other logistical issues.

Additionally, the setup time between pieces had to be accounted for in the 60-minute time limit required for the concert. This could not be accurately determined until we had in-person rehearsals. As soon as this approximate timing was known I chose the historical media, wrote the texts, and recorded the voice-overs, all of which was projected on a screen as the players were setting up for the next piece on the program.

There was a further complication: of the scheduled ten in-person rehearsals, only four would have all 12 players present. This was a nightmare.

While rehearsals were in progress, all the other aspects of the tour had to be arranged. First we had to find venues to play in. We had the HMA venue in Glendale set first. Calling on our national contacts in the handbell world, it took four months to finalize the other three venues in Palo Alto and Dana Point in California, and Las Vegas in Nevada. For the majority of touring that Sonos does around the world, we are usually booked on a concert series and the presenters pay for housing in hotels. This is ideal, but when we organize a tour ourselves and are not being paid a fee, we often ask for homestays. Given the pandemic, we decided homestays would not be feasible. Fortunately, we were able to arrange some housing with family and friends in southern California and timeshares at a hotel in Las Vegas. All of the transportation and housing issues—plus who’s allergic to what animals and foods—were handled with great skill by our very capable equipment manager, Tessique Houston.

In these pandemic times there is a lot of disorientation. We all yearn to return to normal. Let’s let go of the old normal and use the new ways we have learned to go forward. This yearning to push the handbell medium in new directions is only to fulfill the potential for the art. This tour cost Sonos $22,000, so we need to benefit from the process until we can resume our usual touring from which we derive our income. At this point that seems to be at least two years away.

All of this would not have been possible without the contribution of every member on the Sonos team. It is truly a national ensemble with two players driving or flying to rehearsals in Oakland from southern California, two more driving from eastern California and Reno, Nevada, and two others flying in from the east coast. They all understand the issues that faced us and they gave their all to meet them. Making a four-concert tour during COVID times, playing the most difficult music in our 31-year career, ending in a performance for our most knowledgeable peers, with only four rehearsals all together is insane. But to be committed to handbells requires at least a soupçon of insanity!

One of the San Francisco Bay Area’s most well-rounded musicians, James Meredith conducts the country’s acclaimed Sonos Handbell Ensemble. A native of North Carolina, Mr. Meredith received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Master of Fine Arts degree from Tulane University. As a solo pianist, vocal and instrumental accompanist, and conductor in America, Europe, and Asia, his work has brought him into contact with such artists as Elly Ameling, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Olivia Stapp, Frederica von Stade, Eleanor Steber, Evelyn Lear, Gerald Moore, and Dalton Baldwin, whose assistant he has been in summer masterclasses at the French Conservatory in Nice. He is on the faculty of the renowned Young Musicians Choral Orchestra Program where he is Director of Vocal Studies teaching voice and piano.