Let’s take a short break from choreography and talk about something I do every January and July: assess my progress and set goals for the coming 6 months. As with any field, establishing written goals is a significant driver of success, because it determines the use of time and resources. The life of a solo musician (for all its enjoyable aspects) can be lonely and discouraging sometimes. A technique just won’t work, or a tricky passage isn’t improving, or a performance disappoints you, or you feel overwhelmed by everything you ought to be working on, or you experience setbacks. It can be hard to see progress from day to day, and you don’t have the support of a bell choir or other large ensemble.
I find it encouraging to take stock of what I’ve achieved in 6 months, and to recognize how far I’ve progressed in that time. It’s been said that anything you can measure, you can improve. As I go through my calendar to refresh my memory, I delight in recalling certain concerts, training sessions, or other events. It’s astonishing to realize that more than 2000 people saw me solo ring last year! This process also keeps me honest, forcing me to acknowledge what I haven’t achieved yet. Then I can decide whether the goal still matters to me, and buckle down to accomplish it, or let it go, and stop feeling guilty about it. It’s also motivating to consider the possibilities of the coming year. My accompanist and I just selected Christmas music to work on this year, and I’m excited about our choices. A great remedy for the winter blahs.
You might want to do this assessment more often, like each quarter, or less often, like once a year. I find that 6 months is about the right amount of time given the organization of my program year into Christmas and classical performances, and the scheduling of most handbell training events in the summer. Be sure to get input from whoever is coaching you, because they know the road ahead. At the same time, you need goals that you’re motivated to achieve, so take ownership of your commitments.
I use the following categories to establish goals and assess progress, and I’ll explain how I think about them. The format you choose to record this information is far less important than the thought you put into it. I make lists on an Excel spreadsheet now, but, for a long time, I just jotted notes on a pad of paper.
Performances – I evaluate these in terms of the prestige of the venue, the size of the audience, and the significance of my role (did I give a solo concert, or was I one of many performers?). I set goals for the number of performances (generally once a month, with 4-5 in December) and for the venues I want to target. These include both prestigious venues, like museums, and “friendly” venues where I can try out new music, like a retirement home or church service. I could get more gigs, but this is a good balance for me. There are regular opportunities to work on performance skills and get new works in front of an audience, yet plenty of time for individual practice and ensemble rehearsal to develop and refine my repertoire. It’s hard to work on new pieces with a heavy performing commitment that requires constant maintenance of pieces you already know. On the other hand, it’s hard to perform only once or twice a year under the pressure of feeling like you have a lot at stake, with a lot of new music to roll out at once.
Repertoire learned and performed for the first time – I expect to develop about 8-10 new pieces each year, depending on the difficulty. This includes establishing a program theme, finding the music to develop, choreographing, memorizing, rehearsing with an accompanist, polishing, previewing in friendly venues, and performing in my target venue. (This whole process takes from 9 months to a year.) It’s possible to do many more pieces (or accelerate the timeline) if you stick to easier pieces, or choose entirely from published handbell solos, or don’t perform from memory, but this formula works best for me. I balance difficulty levels in the pieces I develop each year, and each must fit into a broader performance plan. My accompanist also reviews the piano parts before I invest time in working on the bell part. A piece counts as completed (for purposes of goal assessment) once I’ve performed it in public, but I continue to polish it.
Training and development – This category includes private handbell coaching; cross-training in piano, percussion, and ballet; attending handbell events; other formal training like Kodály classes; self-study; and reading. When I was learning to solo ring, I placed more emphasis on attending handbell events. Now that I’ve established regular coaching sessions with professional musicians, I’ve found that approach suits my learning style better. At handbell events, you’re part of a class that may be large, is definitely diverse in skills, and seldom allows enough time to master the skill being presented. The instructors may be able to perform a technique themselves but unable to teach it to you in the time available, and there’s little time for individual experimentation and problem-solving. You go to multiple sessions and may come away overwhelmed with information, but with no clear idea how to apply it. The classes offered specifically for soloists at handbell events tend to be limited, repetitive, and tailored to beginners. In this part of the country, handbell events are few and far between, though elsewhere it’s easier to find events within driving distance that might be a good fit.
With regular private training, the lessons move at my pace and are tailored to my needs. That means I can learn a little bit each week, instead of “drinking from a fire hose.” While more expensive, it’s more cost-effective, because all the time and money goes into training instead of traveling to events, and all the training directly influences what I’m working on. I can assess the qualifications of each instructor (both as a musician and as a teacher), and can make changes if I’m not satisfied with either the results or the process. The downside is missing the valuable networking at handbell events. I counter that (as much as possible) by keeping in touch with handbell musicians, attending workshops with other musicians, taking a group class for ballet, and belonging to a local music performance organization.
It’s important to attend at least one major training event every year, whether inside or outside the handbell community. Otherwise, you don’t know what you don’t know. The training resources you decide to invest in, and where you choose to pursue them, depend on what you want to learn. For example, if you want to learn handbell techniques, you pretty much have to attend handbell events, unless you’re lucky enough to live near a qualified teacher. For other aspects of musicianship, you’ll have many more options, which you’ll find by looking around online and asking other people.
Training given to others – This includes running a training choir, teaching workshops, and individual lessons. It also includes what I’m doing through this blog. Many people help us develop as musicians, and it’s important to send the elevator back down.
Skills mastered or improved – It’s tempting, especially at first, to try to learn everything at once. But the reality is that you’re not likely to learn traveling four-in-hand, six-in-hand, and bell trees, for example, in the same year. At least, you’re not going to learn them well and still have any semblance of a life outside of solo handbells. A better approach might be to concentrate on learning one of them, perhaps traveling four-in-hand (T4ih). While you practice that, you can also work on alternate shelley, to learn the pivoting motion that’s the basis for six-in-hand, take some percussion lessons to learn correct mallet technique, and practice scales on bell trees. That’s more than enough to work on simultaneously.
Then, when you’ve mastered T4ih, turn your focus to six-in-hand, while continuing to work on ringing T4ih faster, more reliably, and with larger bells. Start working on four mallet technique (two mallets per hand) while continuing your bell tree scales. Once you’ve mastered six-in-hand, the preliminary percussion study will have prepared you to learn bell tree pieces. You can break down many of the skills this way and learn them over time, while doing preparatory training on other skills. I generally have several skills (not just techniques) on my goals list: a technique needed to play a particular piece; specific aspects of rhythm, musical expression, and music theory; and computer applications like Sibelius music notation software.
Equipment acquired – This includes not only major expenses like bells, but table coverings, bell tree stands, bell cases, wardrobe, recording equipment, etc. There’s always something on the wish list! This requires an investment not only of money, but of time – to research options, or, in some cases, to make the item yourself. I plan to write a blog article about all the “stuff” it takes to be a handbell soloist.
Outreach and promoting my work – This took lower priority for me at first, while I focused on becoming a handbell soloist worth promoting. However, in music, reputation and connections are everything. That’s especially true in the handbell community, where we seldom use academic credentials, competitions, and auditions to differentiate musicians. This area includes creating and maintaining this website, expanding my online presence, developing and disseminating printed marketing materials, giving handbell lectures in the community, preparing works for eventual publication, reaching out to other musicians, serving on the board of a local music organization, performing for children at my teachers’ studio recitals, and seeking new secular venues to perform public concerts.
Copyright © 2012 Nancy Kirkner, handbells.com