No ringer left behind – Communication

Often ringers struggle to keep up with others in a bell choir. Joining an established handbell group is like jumping onto a moving train. Integrating new ringers, especially if they don’t read music yet, can take time but yield big dividends. Or maybe they aren’t new, but they struggle because they didn’t get a good orientation to ringing. As the director or fellow ringer, you may struggle yourself to help them, because you just don’t understand what causes their mistakes. Many struggling ringers are adult beginners, and they haven’t learned the language of music. If you learned music yourself as a child, it’s second nature, and you may not know how to teach basic music principles, or remember how you learned them. It would be like a native speaker teaching the language to an immigrant.

In this series of articles, based on a class I’ve taught at several handbell events, I’ll talk about ways to help ringers who struggle. The principles will also help beginning ringers and ringers looking for guidance on how to improve. I was a struggling ringer, so I’ll talk about things that mystified me, as well as questions I’ve heard when teaching this topic to both ringers and directors. It wasn’t until I started taking piano lessons with a professional music teacher that I learned many of the concepts in these articles. Tip number one: if you don’t read music, find a skilled teacher to work with you individually or in a small group, perhaps on a second instrument. If piano lessons are impossible from a time and/or money standpoint, consider a more accessible instrument, like recorder. The music reading skills you learn will carry over into bells.

I’m not going to focus on people with behavior problems. If a ringer is disruptive or tardy or AWOL, I suggest you speak privately with the individual about what s/he hopes to get out of participating in the handbell group, and about your expectations for ringers, then ask whether s/he can commit to the group on that basis. You may have to suggest that maybe handbell choir isn’t the right activity for that person at the moment. This series is about people who show up and try hard, but you don’t know how to help them, because they struggle with things that seem simple, even obvious, to you.

About struggling ringers: These folks may be very successful in other endeavors. I was a CPA and held two masters degrees when I struggled with ringing; my husband (also a struggling ringer) was an engineer and company president. Struggling ringers aren’t stupid; they’re untrained. That’s great news! Stupid you can do nothing about. Training you can.

Teach more, scream less – David Davidson

In an auditioned choir, you can expect musicians to have certain qualifications. In an inclusive choir, you need to work with whoever comes to you, and meet them wherever they are in their musical development. You may need warm bodies to fill empty slots in your group. They may play other useful roles, perhaps bringing treats, or remembering everyone’s birthday, or supporting the bell choir financially, or being generally fun to have around. Or your group may simply welcome anyone who wants to ring, regardless of ability.

Someone who sings competently in a voice choir may struggle to ring. In a voice choir, if you have a strong section leader and can follow along, you can sing well enough to fake it, without strong music reading skills. In a handbell choir, every position plays an independent part; strong music reading skills are a must. But don’t confuse strong readers with strong ringers. I know some excellent music readers with terrible ringing technique, and they muddle through. However, someone with good ringing technique who doesn’t read well must remedy the deficiency, because missed notes and mistakes matter more to most groups than poor sound quality.

About directors: In the handbell community, we seldom have what church voice choirs commonly have: directors with all the necessary qualifications. To be a successful director, you need these skills:

• Excellent musicianship
• Leadership skills, including planning, time and money management, recruiting, and motivating others
• Clear communication via conducting, writing, and speaking
• An advanced skill level in the relevant instrument (or voice)
• An ability to teach others that skill
• In-depth knowledge of the repertoire, including suitable works for your group
• Knowledge of how to care for the instrument

A small minority of handbell directors meet all these qualifications. In the Seattle area, bell choir directors tend to be church organists with the first three qualifications but not all the rest. Given the demands on a church musician’s time, and the shortage of good, affordable, local handbell training, many never fill the gap. I also know directors with excellent handbell skills, but without some of the other qualifications. Often, handbell directors don’t recognize the gap in their own skills, and unfairly attribute problems to the group. Remember: the extent to which your group succeeds and achieves its full potential defines your success as a handbell director. Good directors build good groups.

About handbell groups: There’s a saying in career circles. “Take care that, in your first job, you get 5 years of experience, not one year of experience 5 times.” In handbell groups, we usually get one year of experience 5 times. Unless a church has a program with multiple groups separated by ability, ringer turnover means the group can’t ever advance much beyond the early intermediate level. Otherwise, it’s inaccessible to new ringers, and the group folds for lack of members. Getting multiple years of solid experience requires a director with the vision to mentor ringers, someone who knows how to teach needed skills effectively and in a logical sequence, to people motivated to learn.

Communicating with struggling ringers

Now, let’s sing a song:


Welcome to the world of the struggling ringer! Your inability to read this doesn’t mean you’re an idiot, or unmusical. It means you haven’t learned the rules of Indian music. This is what music notation looks like to struggling ringers: gibberish. In a future article, we’ll break it down and teach them how to decipher it. First, some suggestions for communicating effectively.

Start from first principles: When teaching something new, assume they know nothing. How often do directors try to explain the circle of fifths to ringers? But do we start with what a “fifth” is, and why it’s significant? Or do we dive right into the finer points of music theory? Do we start slowly, perhaps drawing as we go, or do we put the whole circle in front of them, instilling panic? The director is thinking, “I learned this as a child. It’s not hard.” The ringer is thinking, “OMG, am I supposed to memorize that? It looks complicated! What on earth does it have to do with bells? Is this why we ring in a circle? How can you have all those sharps? and all those flats? and BOTH sharps and flats! What did he just say? Help, I’m lost!” And they end up afraid of a circle.

Someone told me of a ringer who didn’t understand the ‘bells used’ chart, and played it when the director started the piece. But how would a new person know it wasn’t the first measure? You see notes on the staff at the top of the page; why wouldn’t you play them, unless someone explained that the ‘bells used’ chart just specifies which bells the piece requires?

It’s like someone who gave me driving directions in a strange city assuming I knew how to find the major street near my destination. Tell me first, do I turn left or right out of the hotel driveway? Start from the beginning, assume I know nothing, take me through it step by step, and don’t omit key information. But don’t clutter it with useless information, either. “Remember where the post office used to be, but it’s something else now? Don’t turn left there.” (True story.)

Allow time to assimilate information: I sometimes remind my piano teacher, “Please slow down; I’m not as quick as the children.” Children are a blank slate and absorb new information like a sponge. Adults process information differently, and that takes time. Our brains are full of shopping lists, schedules, to-do lists, and memories of our wedding. We have to rearrange some brain cells to make room for new ideas, and that takes a novice longer than it takes an expert. If you don’t allow us that time, the information will slip away, and you’ll just have to tell us again next time. And bear in mind that being told how to do something is not the same as understanding it, never mind being able to do it.

Relate to something already known: To remember information, we need a place to file it in our brains. Help us catalog it by giving us a “hook.” Instead of just pointing out that a passage is marked pianissimo, tell us to “play it as though you were whispering.” A phrase is like musical sentence, and the inflection rises and falls as though we were speaking. The naturals in the bell set are like the white keys on the piano, and the sharps and flats are like the black keys. A mallet is just an external clapper. Andante is a walking pace. If someone plays piano (and a surprising number of ringers do), explain LV in terms of the pedal, which operates the same way.

Teach the thing before the sign: If I showed you the word “dog,” and you had never seen a dog, or heard the word spoken, the written word would be just another random fact you would probably forget. If I show you the notation for a handbell technique I haven’t taught you, I’m going to have to repeat it when you finally learn the technique. Rhythms are like that too. If you teach someone how to feel the rhythm, s/he will play it more correctly than by counting a written pattern. I’ll talk later in the series about how I teach rhythm.

Explain why, not just what: If a music teacher tells a child to do something, the child will probably do it without question. Grown-ups are always bossing children around, and if the child balks, things could get ugly. Adults need to understand the reason for something so we can find a place to file it in our brains. I used to ring in a bell choir where the director announced one day that we were going to play scales. He didn’t happen to mention what a scale was or why it was suddenly important, when scales weren’t on the written rehearsal plan. I was standing at the low bass table behind everyone else, so I couldn’t see the scale hurtling toward me, and of course I dropped it when it arrived. Every time.

I went home, looked up scales, and created a cheat sheet. I also asked another ringer why we were playing scales. After droning on about semitones and a lot of other stuff that went over my head, he finally confessed that scales are a building block of music, and musicians use them to train their hands. Before I could demonstrate this new-found understanding, the director abandoned scales, perhaps forever.

Communicate in multiple ways for different learning styles: A big reason I’ve struggled in music is that I’m a visual person. If I can see it, I can retain it. If you tell me something, I lose most of it. When I teach classes, I always use visual aids to reinforce what I’m speaking about. In rehearsal, I use a whiteboard. And of course, hands-on experience with a concept reinforces knowledge even better than hearing or seeing it.

Make sure they can hear and see you: Some handbell directors talk to bell choirs while they’re ringing. It’s a waste of breath; they can’t hear you over the bells. The ringing needs to stop before you speak. In a large room, or with a soft voice, you may need a microphone. Ringers with hearing loss (assume that applies to any ringer over the age of 60, maybe younger, unless you know otherwise) may need to read your lips. To do that, first they have to realize you’re talking to them, and they may comprehend only part of it. Get their attention, speak slowly and clearly, use visual aids like sheet music or the whiteboard, and ask questions that test for understanding.

Establish good sight-lines from every position. Ringers should be able to see you through their peripheral vision while reading the music. If you’re above them, perhaps on a dais, that may mean raising the sheet music on music stands or risers. If you’re below (for example, the bell choir is in a raised chancel area), avoid music risers. If there’s insufficient light, you or your conducting cues may be hard to see. Consider wearing gloves that contrast with your clothing to make your hands more visible (e.g. white gloves with dark clothing or vestments, or vice versa).

Some ringers may need to invest in handbell glasses. You can read about these glasses in the article on sight-impaired ringers elsewhere on this site. If a ringer sharing a stand has trouble seeing both you and the music, you may need to invest in an additional purchased copy.

Give them something worth watching: Ask someone to critique your conducting technique, record yourself conducting and see if you can count beats and sing the melody following only your visual cues, or take a class in handbell or choral conducting. Handbells are a percussion instrument, so use a strong ictus on every beat. Conducting in a plane makes it easier for ringers to predict where the ictus will occur. If someone isn’t ringing on the beat, or tracking the music, sloppy conducting may contribute to the problem.

Next time, I’ll write about how to address music-reading challenges.

Copyright © 2014 Nancy Kirkner,