by Kathryn Aspenwall

Beginning a new year of ringing brings many questions – Do we have new and/or enough ringers? What will we play? When will we play? How will we play? But I’d like to add one that might not be thought about as much – WHY do we play?

When asked to write an article for faith-based ensembles, many that resume in the fall, I examined what makes us successful (we have minimal problems with attendance, attitude, and staffing). At the top of the list is Who are we ringing for? It’s an easy answer – we ring for the Glory of God! We ring to provide ministry through music. We give our best!

So what makes a faith-based group different? I propose that it’s the “connections” – personal, musical, spiritual. Our faith provides a common denominator of beliefs, serving as a foundation to build relationships. With a strong conservatory trained performance and education background, I began teaching in 1970 thinking musical expertise was the highest priority. It was only through many years of teaching and working in ministry, that my emphasis shifted from musical perfection to ministering to people. People matter! And that’s not just saying it – it’s living it, showing it. Try this link – it’s just a simple chart I developed to celebrate our successes and guide us to where we want to go. (shown on next page)  Here’s the interesting part – our celebrations in three very different ensembles were 75% non-musical (having fun, parties, etc.) and only 25% musical. This emphasizes that people play handbells for friendship, relationships, sharing, serving, and making music. Why do most young students join a band program? “All my friends are doing it.” Of course, there are exceptions but even very serious, talented players want to enjoy the experience. Connection brings fulfillment in any musical group; connection develops the musicality of the group; connection is what enables us to play with sensitivity and with other players. And this connection works with all groups, not just in music and not just in a faith-based setting.

Now comes the hard part – how do you still have an excellent handbell ensemble when you make the members more important than the music?  Just start by showing them you CARE. As we build the self-esteem of members, musical skills develop.  Relating and caring about each other translates into our music. If we REALLY express the music, our congregations will sense this connection and our purpose of bringing glory to our Lord. Rima Greer stressed communication at the National Seminar in Cincinnati in her class – it’s so very important!

There are many ways to build ensembles.  From charts to covenants to games to devotions, just try something new. Many of these are explained my HMA resource Motivation of Members.  Start with finding some ways to “delegate” decisions and leadership. Try having ringers lead warm-up exercises, provide devotionals, prayers, do outreach, bring candy, and/or entertain for parties. If you do an end of year concert, let them choose the repertoire. While writing this, I expect to hear “we don’t have time to add devotions, we barely have enough rehearsal time.” This one activity has changed and influenced our ensembles many times. Sharing becomes as important as ringing. Many times I hear “that devotional was written for me.”

Why connections? Ministry matters! While these are very simple statements, do we, as directors take the time to talk to people? Do we ask them where they’d like to spend some extra time in rehearsal? Are they comfortable with their part? Are we willing to listen? Are we sensitive to our ringers needs musically and emotionally? Let’s hope it’s a YES to all of these!

The start of a new year is a great time to make a difference! Take a bold step and make the difference in how we interact, value, and appreciate each other.  Our ensembles will improve because they want to be there, they want to do their best, they want to serve, and it’s fun. If you don’t have social activities, try adding parties.  Parties at the end of the year can celebrate success and parties at the beginning of a new year provide a great way to welcome any new ringers, catch up on news, and begin the year ready to RING.

Love one another – enjoy your new year – connect on a higher level – and realize that over time the ensemble will grow emotionally and musically, and be better able to enhance the spirituality of the congregation and themselves.