This article was written in response to a series of bullying incidents in the online handbell forums.  Some of the attacks stemmed from ignorance of (or blatant disregard for) copyright law.  Most details have been omitted to protect the guilty.

Whatever the motives of handbell bullies, I’ve been thinking about doubt, the good, the bad, and the truly ugly.

Doubt can sometimes be healthy. When we think we know it all, we cease to learn. When we shut down discussion, we close ourselves off to new information. When we think we’re the cat’s pajamas, we don’t work hard enough. I’ve noticed in the handbell community a tendency to set the bar too low. To be blunt, handbell musicians sometimes act as though they think they’re better than they really are. The standard of comparison is with other handbell musicians, rather than with all musicians. Our audiences are so lavish with their praise (often more about the novelty factor than a high level of musicianship), that we start to believe it. We blame the “handbell stigma” on people too stupid to appreciate how great we are, instead of considering what we need to do to become truly great musicians and earn their respect.

I’ve written before about professionalism, and what it takes to achieve mastery of an instrument. I hasten to add: I have no illusion I’ve mastered handbells myself, to the standard I’m talking about, and I probably never will. The pioneers of solo ringing laid the foundation for the art form, and future generations will bring it to maturity. My dream is to see handbells at home on any classical concert stage, anywhere in the world. That isn’t going to happen in my career, and probably not in my lifetime. I see myself as a bridge. I can only keep alive the art form as taught to me by the pioneers, make modest discoveries and additions of my own, document the knowledge, and pass it along to inspire and elevate future generations.

I once read that the difference between confidence and arrogance is this: The confident person understands and respects the magnitude of the task, and knows that s/he can rise to the challenge. The arrogant person doesn’t respect the difficulty of the task, but still believes s/he can complete it successfully. This is largely a matter of preparation and skill. In my early days of performance, I wasn’t always well-prepared. It was partly inexperience, and partly not understanding the task. With experience, I’ve learned what I must do, and what conditions must exist, for me to perform successfully. In particular, I’ve learned the importance of drilling skills, the fallacy of playing a piece over and over without working to improve small details, the need to make the hard parts as solid as the easy parts, and the benefits of trying out material in a friendly environment before taking it to a high-stress performance.

Here’s where the healthy doubt comes in again. I work for 2 1/2 hours every week with an accompanist/coach, with whom I’ve worked for 5 years. Her job isn’t to stroke my ego, though she’s always tactful and encouraging. Her job is to focus on what isn’t good yet, and to point out ways it could be better. The results have been astonishing, if the dropped jaws in the audience are any indication. But I wouldn’t have accomplished it without doubting my ability to get there on my own, and recognizing the value that a musician with more experience could offer. We still have the novelty problem at concerts. I sometimes wish I could announce, “The pianist is the better musician here. I would be nothing without her.” But I feel I’ve earned at least some of the praise offered me, and have the satisfaction of knowing how hard I’m working to deserve it.

Doubt can be a little amusing. When I taught at National Seminar recently, I was gratified at the response to my classes. But I noticed a subtle difference. People who were just meeting me, or knew me only online, treated me with respect, for which I’m grateful. Some who have known me since I was a struggling ringer (of the “can’t reliably count to four” type) had trouble hiding their surprise at the caliber of my classes. It made me chuckle to myself. I don’t claim to have the same command of a classroom as a professional music teacher. But I’ve been teaching business topics for decades and privately teaching handbells for over 5 years. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from people who have taught me, including effective ways to teach. I have analytical, time-management, and public speaking skills honed over the course of a long professional career. Why wouldn’t my classes be good?

So now we have unhealthy doubt. That’s where people doubt other people can do something because they, personally, have never seen them do it. Or they dismiss their knowledge when it’s contradicted by someone more prestigious (or sometimes, just louder). This is known in heuristics as “recognition,” where we assign more importance to something that’s familiar. (A heuristic is a mental shortcut that may not produce optimal results.) For example, which is the larger company, Starbucks or AmerisourceBergen? Never heard of AmerisourceBergen? This drug wholesale company had 2012 revenues of $79.49 billion vs. $13.3 billion for Starbucks. Their respective Fortune 500 rankings are 24 and 241. AmerisourceBergen may be foreign to you, but it’s not insignificant. In the handbell world, we assign more credibility to people we’ve heard of, regardless of whether they have expertise in a particular subject. We offer more teaching and performance opportunities to people we know personally, whether or not they’re the best qualified. We doubt the wrong people, leading to a culture where self-promotion outweighs mastery. Let’s remember that Kiriku, Vivace, and the Hong Kong Youth Handbell Ensemble were all excellent performing ensembles before they were “discovered.” Who else do we overlook?

Another example of unhealthy doubt: People have a lurking feeling they don’t really know what they’re doing, and don’t deal with it effectively. Or they should have doubt, but they think they know it all. They don’t know what they don’t know. Instead of adopting a learning mentality, they adopt a justification mentality. People with a learning mentality gather information, especially feedback on their own performance, from any knowledgeable source willing to share it. Then they examine it, consider it objectively, and take the appropriate course of action. That helps them make sound decisions, adopt best practices, improve over time, and get good results.

People with a justification mentality pay attention only to what reinforces their preconceived notion of reality, facts, or the right way to do things. They don’t take coaching well, if at all. They point to any small deficiency as proof that the new approach doesn’t work and never will, when maybe it doesn’t work yet. Someone once defined insanity as doing the same things over and over while expecting a different outcome. People with a justification mentality are doomed to that hamster-wheel frustration. Another term for this outlook is “confirmation bias.” The antidote is to seek non-confirming information, to actively search for information that contradicts your belief. Colloquially, we call this having an open mind. It doesn’t mean believing everything you hear, read, or think, but it does mean a willingness to seek out the opposite point of view, give it fair consideration, and not shout down whatever (or whoever) takes you out of your comfort zone. Well-run companies sometimes appoint a “devil’s advocate” in strategy meetings. That person’s role is to focus entirely on what the group is missing in its discussion, and to introduce objections for the group to examine before making a decision. That is, they sow good doubt, in the hope of choosing a course of action that doesn’t get derailed later by problems that could have been anticipated.

When I first started solo ringing, I expected to perform actively in the community and wanted to understand my copyright obligations. I knew it was a whole new ball game, and I wanted to play by the rules. Plenty of people, including handbell household names, gave me misinformation, basically telling me it didn’t matter. But I have a lot of intellectual curiosity, plus the compliance mindset and research skills that go with having been a CPA, and I wanted to know what the law expected of me. It took a lot of persistence to sort through the misinformation and seek new sources of good information. The most satisfying part for me has been not only the ability to meet my obligations to the composers and publishers I rely on for material, but the opportunity to show leadership in this issue within the handbell community. I perceive that more and more handbell people want to understand and obey copyright law. When I taught classes on this subject at National Seminar, the audience was respectful and engaged. One publisher came up afterwards and told me it was the best summary of copyright for musicians she had ever heard. While many people share the credit for educating the handbell community about copyright, I feel the conversation has changed, and I’ve contributed to that.

Next we come, reluctantly, to truly ugly doubt. That’s where people sow the seeds of doubt into and about others. They look for chinks in other people’s armor, and actively work to harass, embarrass, or discredit them. I’m not talking about healthy debate, or friendly competition to excel, or sharing information, or legitimate differences of opinion on matters that are subject to opinion (as opposed to matters of fact, like copyright). The kind of person I’m talking about clearly intends to make others feel bad about themselves and look bad to others. They demonize people for innocent behavior, including things said and done in the “real world,” that is, entirely outside the discussion forum, sometimes from rehearsals or private conversations. That destroys trust, hurts innocent people, and discourages risk-taking.

There should be no tolerance of bullying  in the handbell community. We repeatedly emphasize that our instrument relies on cooperation and teamwork. Even a soloist must play well with an accompanist and others. Many of us are volunteers, nobody is in this for the money, and we need to support each other. The forums exist for the exchange of information and encouragement, not for people with an ax to grind. Bullying intimidates others into silence, for fear of becoming a target, denying the rest of us the wealth of experience that “lurkers” could offer, and denying “lurkers” full participation in the discussion.

I’m not advocating censorship, which can stifle an unpopular point of view that may, in fact, be the correct one. Just being in a minority of one doesn’t make someone automatically wrong. But we need to “name the game” and send a clear message that bullying will not be allowed and that bullies will be voted off the island. Ignoring them doesn’t always work; sometimes it emboldens them. Nobody should be allowed to deliberately take away other people’s joy in ringing or attempt to drive them from a discussion. Will you stand up to bullies? Or will you be an Internet bully’s next victim?

Copyright © 2013 Nancy Kirkner,