Finding a solo handbell coach

Whether starting to solo or learning specific techniques, look for a teacher. Finding a handbell instructor in your area may prove difficult, and you may need to travel. (While books and videos will be helpful resources, you really need a teacher. Would you try to learn the violin with only a book to guide you? ) Maybe your handbell director can help, or an advanced ringer in your bell choir. Look online for soloists who may live near you, or who travel. If there’s a community bell choir nearby, call and ask if they offer workshops, or if someone in the choir would meet with you to teach you the skills you need. Always check out the prospective coach’s work to see if s/he seems qualified to teach others.

Note:  I’m always happy to give advice or feedback on videos, and I also coach soloists remotely using online video chat.  Please let me know if I can help you.

If you’re going to a handbell event, find out which soloists will be there, and ask one of them for a private coaching session. If she’s too busy, ask her to suggest someone else. Keep an eye out for touring soloists, who may be willing to meet with you. See if someone you admire would watch a video of your ringing and give you feedback. (Watching your own videos is useful only if you know what to watch and listen for.)

If you’re proficient in handbell techniques, and you can’t find a handbell coach anywhere else, you may find a percussion instructor helpful. People who play the marimba deal with many of the same issues as handbell soloists, and my percussion teacher has been extremely helpful to me on issues of movement, rhythm, musicality, and tone color. Just don’t expect a marimbist to teach you choreography or traveling four-in-hand. You may also benefit from working with a skilled musician in any discipline who can help you with musicality and give you objective feedback.

You should expect to pay for solo handbell training, just as you would for another instrument. The going rate for private coaching seems to be around $50/hour, about what you’d pay for a piano lesson in Seattle. It’s quite reasonable, when you consider how much time and money you would spend going to handbell events without necessarily obtaining the results you want. Be persistent; finding a suitable coach may take many months and a lot of research.

Handbell events offer classes, but often the teacher is stretched quite thin teaching too many topics to too large a class. My students have told me that when they attend handbell events, they learn that certain techniques are possible, but they don’t actually learn to do them themselves. Many years ago, I attended a class on weaving where there were so many people I couldn’t even get near the bell table. I didn’t learn to weave that day! As a direct result, I allocate specific bells and table space for each student in my classes. Look for an opportunity to learn one-on-one, or in a very small group.

When you learn an instrument as an adult, your coach is your partner in learning, not your boss. Take the initiative to make the most of your coaching session. Arrange all the logistics up front, such as ensuring the bells are set up beforehand. Send the coach information about your skill level and what you hope to learn. If you don’t know anything about solo ringing, ask the coach to start with the basics. If you have experience, come with a list of questions and problems to solve, and rank them by priority. Take extensive notes during the session for later reference. I sometimes go back to notes from early coaching sessions and find things I forgot about. It’s almost like getting a free lesson.

Although you want to set the agenda for your coaching sessions, you need to remain teachable. Remember that the best always seek to get better. If you just want someone to admire your work, play for someone who’s easily impressed that you’re playing “all those bells.” Come to the coaching session expecting constructive criticism, and listen to the coach’s ideas and feedback. A tactful and effective coach will compliment you on what you’re doing well and have lots of suggestions for specific changes to improve your ringing. She should be able to teach you the technique, not just demonstrate or explain it. No matter who the coach was, I’ve always learned something significant in the sessions I’ve taken.

If you study with someone very long, you will end up looking and sounding like him or her, so choose someone whose style you admire. Look for someone who’s doing what you aspire to do; no one can teach you what he doesn’t know himself.

Copyright © 2011 Nancy Kirkner,