When Dean and Paul interviewed me on The Handbell Podcast, they asked what I would change about the handbell community if I could. I responded that handbell musicians often ask the wrong question. Instead of wondering how we can attract more people to our concerts, let’s consider how we can become musicians who deserve a large audience. A reader asked me to elaborate.

Some members of the handbell community assume we could be more popular with general audiences if only more people knew about us. I see it differently. I’ve never met anyone who hadn’t heard of handbells, but many audience members tell me they never considered handbells a real instrument until they heard me solo ring. As a community, we don’t have a marketing problem – we have a problem of substance. In general, handbell musicians haven’t embraced the same disciplines that shape professional musicians in other areas, and haven’t put in the work to earn a large following.

Handbells would advance as an instrument if we adopted norms of professional musicians, who:

• Take weekly private lessons for 20+ years, starting at an early age, with structured pedagogy and daily practice.
• Participate in adjudications and contests, receiving feedback from a variety of judges while a student, and later serving as a judge.
• Pay for their own instrument, sheet music, and training.
• Earn a college degree in music, and perhaps an advanced degree in music performance.
• Master two years of college level music theory, and often a second instrument and/or composition.
• Pursue ongoing education targeted toward particular development needs.
• Read sophisticated journals and books, and discuss topics of substance with a network of peers, to advance their knowledge and skills.
• Learn and follow the copyright laws that apply to them, financially supporting the composers and publishers they rely on to provide material.
• Practice regularly, both technique and literature. I’ve read it takes 10,000 hours of focused effort to master a skill. A professional musician may practice for 20 hours a week, year-round, starting as a youngster. Handbell musicians often rehearse only 1-3 hours a week, 9 months a year. At that rate, it takes 85 to 256 years to achieve proficiency.
• Work not only on the mechanics of a piece, but the quality of sound.
• Master a performance repertoire with hundreds of pieces, some of them polished for a decade or more.
• Frequently perform from memory.
• Perform at least once a week, year-round, at a variety of venues.
• Obtain performance opportunities by audition.
• Prepare a thoughtful concert program with elements of unity and contrast.
• Put most of what they have to say (acknowledgments, explanations) in the printed concert bulletin.
• Use professional-looking publicity materials (photos, website, brochure, etc.) and possibly a booking agent.
• Publish recordings on reputable labels.
• Earn a living from music, from performance, or teaching, or both. Their market appreciates the value of their skills and experience enough to pay for them.

Seldom will a professional classical musician in concert:

• Employ props and sight gags instead of musical expression to convey the music’s meaning.
• Fail to recover from a mistake.
• Use pre-recorded accompaniment.
• Perform an entire program clearly more enjoyable to play than to listen to.
• Play Christmas music outside the Christmas season.
• Move their lips to count visibly (or worse, audibly).
• Wear a polo shirt.
• Litter the stage with instrument cases.
• Perform after a months-long gap in practice, or with only minimal preparation.
• Explain techniques and take questions from the audience.
• Invite the audience to come on stage and try out their instrument.

We see these things in handbells all the time, even among elite ringers, and (in my opinion) they detract from the image we want to cultivate. If we want to be taken seriously, we need to play by the same rules as professional musicians.

It’s fine to play handbells for our own enjoyment, but let’s not expect people to give up an afternoon or evening to watch us have a good time. People attend concerts so they can have a good time, and that results from the quality of the musicians and the experience offered. Let’s not waste time solving the wrong problem.

While someone is out buying funny hats, someone else is practicing.

Copyright © 2013 Nancy Kirkner,