From Church Choir to Concert Setting

by Beth Ann Edwards

Beth Ann Edwards serves as Director of Arts, Handbells, and Youth Choirs at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Iowa, where she oversees all arts programming and assists with worship planning, as well as directs handbell choirs and children’s and youth vocal choirs. Beth Ann holds a Master of Church Music degree with Handbell Emphasis, a Bachelor of Science degree in secondary English education, a Bachelor of Fine Arts in visual art, and a Master of Business Administration.
Her ringing career began 30 years ago in a church handbell choir. For the past 20 years she has attended advanced ringing events including Bay View Week of Handbells and Distinctly Bronze, and currently rings in the community handbell ensemble, HeartBeat. She is a founding member and co-director of Des Moines Concert Handbells, an advanced community handbell ensemble. Beth Ann has directed all ages and levels of handbell musicians since 1999.
Beth Ann chairs the Donald E. Allured Original Composition Award committee and has held several positions on the Iowa and Area 8 Handbell Musicians of America boards, including Area 8 Chair. She has held several appointed and elected positions in community and civic organizations including Des Moines Choral Society, Arts in the City, and Junior League. Beth Ann is married and has three grown children and four grandchildren. She balances her family and music life with painting in her studio, travel, knitting, and reading.

This article is based on a class I taught at National Seminar in 2020 and 2021.

COVID won’t last forever, and when opportunities open up again, your church handbell choir just might receive an invitation to perform a concert. Are you concert-ready? There’s so much to consider: music selection, your choir’s abilities and interests, how to prepare, equipment, venue, and more! Oh–and what should we wear? Take a look at the following checklist; if your choir matches up favorably, it might be a good candidate for an outside gig.

Ringer Willingness

Is your choir interested and able to perform at a concert? One of the biggest success factors is the desire of the ringers to perform in a concert setting. Consider the following:

  • The ringers follow instructions well, and are willing to make modifications in ringing style and presentation.
  • Ringers are eager to move to the next level of musicianship.
  • Subs, if needed, are available to attend rehearsals before the gig.

Equipment

Look objectively at your equipment. Make sure every bell is voiced correctly and all the parts are in working order. The cases must be able to handle moving from location to location, and a cart or two might be in order. Check out these details:

  • Your handbell equipment, including bells, mallets, cases, tables, stand lights, and table covers, is clean, in good repair, and “gig-ready.”
  • Your handbell equipment is available to be moved to the gig location.
  • Your equipment is insured to be taken out of the building.
  • Your choir and trusty roadies can move equipment back and forth between church and gig. Consider personnel availability, vehicles, and schedules of transporters and venue personnel.
  • Check out the venue to see if the bells will need to be mic’d and if you will be responsible for providing mics. Make sure there are plenty of electrical outlets and extension cords. Will you need to hire someone to run the sound equipment?

Gig Specifics: When and Where

So much more goes into planning a gig than just ringing. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Will the gig require an overnight stay? Dinner after the concert? Who will organize these events?
  • Is this a solo gig for your choir, or are you part of a concert with other musicians and ensembles? How much ringing time is expected of your choir?
  • Is a printed program required and will you need to produce it? How many will you need?
  • Will the director (and possibly ringers) be required to produce bios? What about program notes?
  • Will the director (or others) be expected to talk before/after/between selections?
  • Will you sign a contract?

Set-up Details

Whenever possible, check out the venue before you agree to a gig. Look at the location for the bell tables and make sure there is enough room for the ringers to fit comfortably. Measure the space and write it down, and then take pictures with your phone. If your contact at the venue says they can provide six-foot or eight-foot banquet tables for you to use, ask to see them, and then measure them. (I once had a gig with my youth handbell choir at a care facility. My contact swore they had eight-foot rectangular banquet tables we could use. Surprise! They were round tables. It was awkward, to say the least. Lesson learned!) Here are a few more items to consider:

  • What are the space and acoustics considerations?
  • Are tables provided?
  • Does the venue have an elevator and/or ramp available for loading? You might ask to see it.
  • When can you set up?
  • What is the parking availability, and is there an easy spot for load-in and load-out?

Rehearsal at the Venue

  • Can you set up and rehearse before the day of the event? If so, will bells and equipment be secured while they are at the venue?
  • How soon before the gig can you enter the building and rehearse?
  • Will scheduled rehearsal time include time for set-up?

Music Selection

A church choir’s first gig is not the place to pull out the coolest, most challenging music you heard at last summer’s National Seminar or Raleigh Ringers concert. Ringer confidence will provide less stress, happier ringers, and stronger musicianship. Choose a theme, and look at the following suggestions:

  • For the majority of your set or concert, pick music the choir has performed and loved.
  • When choosing new music, pick pieces that are at or under their current “stretch” ringing level.
  • Find a concert opener and perhaps an additional piece or two that requires few or no bell changes.
  • Choose selections that have a variety of meters, key signatures, tempos, and techniques.
  • Add variety with selections that include a vocalist or instrumentalist.
  • Practice! Schedule extra rehearsals to build confidence.
  • Try a run-through of everything but ringing: bell set-up, equipment used for each piece, move to a different ringing spot, etc. Make sure all ringers write down this information. Do not rely on memory.
  • Schedule a pre-gig event, perhaps after a worship service, or during coffee hour on Sunday. Have the ringers perform in a location different from their Sunday morning spot and practice moving all necessary equipment.

Critique a Rehearsal

  • Record a rehearsal and ask ringers to watch it, giving constructive suggestions about note/rhythm accuracy, musicality, technique, overall appearance, and demeanor.
  • Invite a third party to a rehearsal and ask for suggestions on the spot, or later in private.

What to Wear

Fit your wardrobe to the gig, which can range from matching t-shirts to all black to Sunday morning choir robes. Remember that if a ringer asks if something is okay, there’s a good chance it isn’t. Reinforce the dress code several times: email, during rehearsal, and handouts. If one or more of your ringers might choose attire that doesn’t fit the rest of the choir, bring in examples of appropriate clothing and perhaps inappropriate clothing. And if you have a preview concert for church members, ask the ringers to wear their concert attire. Here are some guidelines:

  • If ringers choose their attire, be consistent: sleeves the same length, same glove color, etc.
  • Wear comfortable shoes, with heel heights about the same as the shoes worn to rehearsal.
  • No “bling”: shiny metallic bits, beads, jewels, etc., on clothing even remotely close to damping areas.
  • Make sure wardrobe choices support the event, and don’t “become” the event.

Post Gig

Find a system that works best for tear-down and load-out. If all hands are needed on deck, it might take a few gigs to smooth out the system. Prepare your ringers for some chaos, and present a calm demeanor and a steady pace. Tear-down should not be a contest or race to the finish.

  • If a reception takes place after the concert, make sure ringers spend some time mingling with audience members. Saying “thank you” shows appreciation to your audience. Tear-down and load-out can wait a few minutes. Some choirs invite audience members to come to the table to see and hold a handbell. It might be a good recruiting tool!
  • Assign a few people to check every case and every bell and chime to make sure they are in the correct spots. Ask a few others to walk through the area more than once to make sure all of your belongings are removed, and that your location is clean and tidy.
  • Ask ringers to help re-set the church rehearsal space to its former order, either when the equipment is returned, or before the next rehearsal.
  • Write thank-you notes as necessary: the gig hosts, personal contacts, etc.
  • Write a thank-you email to the ringers and focus on the positive. Do not remind them of ringing errors or other mishaps that might have occurred during the concert.

Finally, spend time at the next rehearsal reviewing the experience. Focus on the positive, and find some bonding moments from the experience. Try to get a feel for their willingness to take part in future gigs. If they say no, talk about it. They might have some good ideas for future gigs, and they might need a little time to sort the positives from the challenges of that first gig. And if all goes well, there may be successive gigs in your future!

This article is based on a class I taught at National Seminar in 2020 and 2021.

COVID won’t last forever, and when opportunities open up again, your church handbell choir just might receive an invitation to perform a concert. Are you concert-ready? There’s so much to consider: music selection, your choir’s abilities and interests, how to prepare, equipment, venue, and more! Oh–and what should we wear? Take a look at the following checklist; if your choir matches up favorably, it might be a good candidate for an outside gig.

Ringer Willingness

Is your choir interested and able to perform at a concert? One of the biggest success factors is the desire of the ringers to perform in a concert setting. Consider the following:

  • The ringers follow instructions well, and are willing to make modifications in ringing style and presentation.
  • Ringers are eager to move to the next level of musicianship.
  • Subs, if needed, are available to attend rehearsals before the gig.

Equipment

Look objectively at your equipment. Make sure every bell is voiced correctly and all the parts are in working order. The cases must be able to handle moving from location to location, and a cart or two might be in order. Check out these details:

  • Your handbell equipment, including bells, mallets, cases, tables, stand lights, and table covers, is clean, in good repair, and “gig-ready.”
  • Your handbell equipment is available to be moved to the gig location.
  • Your equipment is insured to be taken out of the building.
  • Your choir and trusty roadies can move equipment back and forth between church and gig. Consider personnel availability, vehicles, and schedules of transporters and venue personnel.
  • Check out the venue to see if the bells will need to be mic’d and if you will be responsible for providing mics. Make sure there are plenty of electrical outlets and extension cords. Will you need to hire someone to run the sound equipment?

Gig Specifics: When and Where

So much more goes into planning a gig than just ringing. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Will the gig require an overnight stay? Dinner after the concert? Who will organize these events?
  • Is this a solo gig for your choir, or are you part of a concert with other musicians and ensembles? How much ringing time is expected of your choir?
  • Is a printed program required and will you need to produce it? How many will you need?
  • Will the director (and possibly ringers) be required to produce bios? What about program notes?
  • Will the director (or others) be expected to talk before/after/between selections?
  • Will you sign a contract?

Set-up Details

Whenever possible, check out the venue before you agree to a gig. Look at the location for the bell tables and make sure there is enough room for the ringers to fit comfortably. Measure the space and write it down, and then take pictures with your phone. If your contact at the venue says they can provide six-foot or eight-foot banquet tables for you to use, ask to see them, and then measure them. (I once had a gig with my youth handbell choir at a care facility. My contact swore they had eight-foot rectangular banquet tables we could use. Surprise! They were round tables. It was awkward, to say the least. Lesson learned!) Here are a few more items to consider:

  • What are the space and acoustics considerations?
  • Are tables provided?
  • Does the venue have an elevator and/or ramp available for loading? You might ask to see it.
  • When can you set up?
  • What is the parking availability, and is there an easy spot for load-in and load-out?

Rehearsal at the Venue

  • Can you set up and rehearse before the day of the event? If so, will bells and equipment be secured while they are at the venue?
  • How soon before the gig can you enter the building and rehearse?
  • Will scheduled rehearsal time include time for set-up?

Music Selection

A church choir’s first gig is not the place to pull out the coolest, most challenging music you heard at last summer’s National Seminar or Raleigh Ringers concert. Ringer confidence will provide less stress, happier ringers, and stronger musicianship. Choose a theme, and look at the following suggestions:

  • For the majority of your set or concert, pick music the choir has performed and loved.
  • When choosing new music, pick pieces that are at or under their current “stretch” ringing level.
  • Find a concert opener and perhaps an additional piece or two that requires few or no bell changes.
  • Choose selections that have a variety of meters, key signatures, tempos, and techniques.
  • Add variety with selections that include a vocalist or instrumentalist.
  • Practice! Schedule extra rehearsals to build confidence.
  • Try a run-through of everything but ringing: bell set-up, equipment used for each piece, move to a different ringing spot, etc. Make sure all ringers write down this information. Do not rely on memory.
  • Schedule a pre-gig event, perhaps after a worship service, or during coffee hour on Sunday. Have the ringers perform in a location different from their Sunday morning spot and practice moving all necessary equipment.

Critique a Rehearsal

  • Record a rehearsal and ask ringers to watch it, giving constructive suggestions about note/rhythm accuracy, musicality, technique, overall appearance, and demeanor.
  • Invite a third party to a rehearsal and ask for suggestions on the spot, or later in private.

What to Wear

Fit your wardrobe to the gig, which can range from matching t-shirts to all black to Sunday morning choir robes. Remember that if a ringer asks if something is okay, there’s a good chance it isn’t. Reinforce the dress code several times: email, during rehearsal, and handouts. If one or more of your ringers might choose attire that doesn’t fit the rest of the choir, bring in examples of appropriate clothing and perhaps inappropriate clothing. And if you have a preview concert for church members, ask the ringers to wear their concert attire. Here are some guidelines:

  • If ringers choose their attire, be consistent: sleeves the same length, same glove color, etc.
  • Wear comfortable shoes, with heel heights about the same as the shoes worn to rehearsal.
  • No “bling”: shiny metallic bits, beads, jewels, etc., on clothing even remotely close to damping areas.
  • Make sure wardrobe choices support the event, and don’t “become” the event.

Post Gig

Find a system that works best for tear-down and load-out. If all hands are needed on deck, it might take a few gigs to smooth out the system. Prepare your ringers for some chaos, and present a calm demeanor and a steady pace. Tear-down should not be a contest or race to the finish.

  • If a reception takes place after the concert, make sure ringers spend some time mingling with audience members. Saying “thank you” shows appreciation to your audience. Tear-down and load-out can wait a few minutes. Some choirs invite audience members to come to the table to see and hold a handbell. It might be a good recruiting tool!
  • Assign a few people to check every case and every bell and chime to make sure they are in the correct spots. Ask a few others to walk through the area more than once to make sure all of your belongings are removed, and that your location is clean and tidy.
  • Ask ringers to help re-set the church rehearsal space to its former order, either when the equipment is returned, or before the next rehearsal.
  • Write thank-you notes as necessary: the gig hosts, personal contacts, etc.
  • Write a thank-you email to the ringers and focus on the positive. Do not remind them of ringing errors or other mishaps that might have occurred during the concert.

Finally, spend time at the next rehearsal reviewing the experience. Focus on the positive, and find some bonding moments from the experience. Try to get a feel for their willingness to take part in future gigs. If they say no, talk about it. They might have some good ideas for future gigs, and they might need a little time to sort the positives from the challenges of that first gig. And if all goes well, there may be successive gigs in your future!

Beth Ann Edwards serves as Director of Arts, Handbells, and Youth Choirs at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Iowa, where she oversees all arts programming and assists with worship planning, as well as directs handbell choirs and children’s and youth vocal choirs. Beth Ann holds a Master of Church Music degree with Handbell Emphasis, a Bachelor of Science degree in secondary English education, a Bachelor of Fine Arts in visual art, and a Master of Business Administration.
Her ringing career began 30 years ago in a church handbell choir. For the past 20 years she has attended advanced ringing events including Bay View Week of Handbells and Distinctly Bronze, and currently rings in the community handbell ensemble, HeartBeat. She is a founding member and co-director of Des Moines Concert Handbells, an advanced community handbell ensemble. Beth Ann has directed all ages and levels of handbell musicians since 1999.
Beth Ann chairs the Donald E. Allured Original Composition Award committee and has held several positions on the Iowa and Area 8 Handbell Musicians of America boards, including Area 8 Chair. She has held several appointed and elected positions in community and civic organizations including Des Moines Choral Society, Arts in the City, and Junior League. Beth Ann is married and has three grown children and four grandchildren. She balances her family and music life with painting in her studio, travel, knitting, and reading.