Imagine This… - By Gail Welk

Imagine this... about 6 weeks ago you placed an order for a new set of Malmark handbells. Today is an ordinary day when a delivery truck pulls up and the driver unloads multiple brown boxes. You can't wait to see what is inside. The excitement grows as you start on the first box. You carefully open the carton and lift out the black case which rests inside. You open one latch, two and the third and lift the lid. Inside you find the most beautiful sight... brand new, perfectly crafted and shiny... HANDBELLLS!!!! THE END...

"But wait!!" you say... "What comes next? This can't be the end!!!" No, this is just the beginning. What does come next? What do we do with them? How do we take our brand new perfectly crafted and shiny handbells and create beautiful music?

As a Malmark representative, I find great pleasure in providing my clients, who have just purchased new handbells, a complimentary workshop as a way of saying thank you for choosing Malmark. But in addition to appreciation there is a more specific purpose to offering this gift. As beginning ringers learn the basic techniques there is value in helping them understand how the basics are used to create a musical and emotional sound. Using visuals ringers can be taught how to hold, prep, and ring the bell musically from the beginning.

Imagine this... "Hold your bell like you are about to speak into a microphone, slightly tilted so you can look inside the bell. This is your ready-to-ring position." Demonstrate the stroke and voilà... everyone does a beautiful round big circle! Eh, well, not quite: often the lip of the bell ends up falling toward the table or the ringer's arm moves in a straight-line parallel to the table. So, we try a different approach. Imagine this..."Put your bells down and pretend that your fists are your feet on the pedals of your bicycle. Now pedal backwards. Next, turn your fists sideways (thumbs on top) and continue to pedal backwards. Now pick up your bells and try it and we have pretty, round circles. Get the feel of the motion. When the bell is at its furthest point away from you, apply just the right amount of energy to make the clapper strike the casting as you continue the circle up and back to your shoulder." Some may use the analogy of a football: the clapper-strike comes at the furthest point of the ball. When teaching the technique of ringing the lower bells (approximately G4 and below) think of a locomotive motion using the upper arm and not so much the wrist. A variety of visuals can help you.

As you may know, teaching the concept of the damp is just as important as and can be more difficult than teaching the ring. The motto of Handbell Musicians of America is "Uniting people through a Musical Art." Visualize painting a picture with blue sky and green grass. At some point the two colors meet. They do not overlap nor are they separated by white canvas. When you sing your voice connects the words. Your voice cannot blend two words together and you usually don't sing with spaces between the words. The timing of the damp is based on the note value. Properly rung note values make the difference between playing the right notes and playing the right notes musically. A whole note rung on beat one damps on beat one. We want that whole note to last 4 complete beats; no gaps and no overlaps. When working with kids talk about eating the whole pizza without leaving a sliver.

We move on to the many techniques which allow a variety of sounds and add character to your music. An excellent piece which demonstrates this is Tammy Waldrop's narrative, "Noah and the Ark". Shakes, marts, thumb damps, tower swings and more, are used in a delightful way to describe the dialogue between the Lord and Noah, the building of the ark, the animals as they board the Ark, and the rainbow rising in the sky. Imagine the Monkeys:

Or the rain drops:

(Copyright© 1991 RING OUT PRESS, RO 0611.Used with permission.)

One of the things I love about handbells is the capacity they hold for creativity and beauty. Whether you are a director or ringer, think beyond the notes on the page, the counting, and the techniques. Directors, envision ways to help your ringers feel the excitement or sensitivity of your music. While the basic techniques are crucial, go beyond the basics. Present images which allow ringers to internalize the feelings you are trying to achieve.

Dynamic changes can be challenging for bell choirs from beginning to advanced groups. At a workshop, Arnold Sherman taught us to begin executing the dynamics when you first sight read a piece of music. Don't wait until the ringers have learned all the notes to add the dynamic and tempo changes. Help them understand the character of the piece from the first time you read it. Use visuals to help ringers feel the emotion of tempo and dynamic changes by relating something familiar to the changes in the music. Your music is changing from a quick forte 'A' section to a more reflective 'B' section. Have your ringers close their eyes and imagine the scene from the Wizard of Oz where our main characters come to the edge of the forest and see with excitement, for the first time, the Emerald City. They begin to joyfully run, leaping through the field of Poppies. But as the witch's spell takes effect their running gradually slows until they are so tired and they lie down and fall asleep. Now, of course you do not want your listeners falling asleep but you get the idea. This is a perfect example of using a visualization to help ringers feel the ritardando and decrescendo during a transition but it only works with people who have seen the movie.

Presenting visualizations can help your choir feel the emotion you are trying to achieve: for instance a rollercoaster car climbs the rails, upward, slowly with anticipation until it creeps over the top and begins its rapid descent. Popcorn popping or the sound of a soft breeze blowing the fall leaves as they float to the ground. Strive to connect them with the feeling and remind them to breathe throughout.

Transform your music from just notes on the page. We must feel the emotion we want our listeners to experience: calm, excitement, intensity, joy, grief or anticipation. From opening your brand new perfectly shiny bells to watching Dorothy asleep in the Poppies, take your listeners on a journey to a beautiful place. That place which very quietly says "Wow" after the last chord damps and the bells are gently lowered to the tables.

"Music is what feelings sound like out loud. I sing songs that speak from my heart. They tell my story, how I feel."  - Georgia Cates

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"It is not enough to play just the notes, or sing the words. Or hear the song. For it to mean something, you have to feel the music. Because if you don't feel it...How can anyone else?" - Author Unknown

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