No Auditions Required: The Experience of Being Part of a Handbell Choir Must be Open to All

Posted in: Percussion by WebScribe on August 27th, 2010 | 6 Comments

Being part of a handbell and/or handchime choir, ringing out melodious tones and magnificent music, is such an enjoyable and, for some, therapeutic experience that it should rightfully be open to all people, of any age or ability. Yet often, there are significant barriers to membership in many groups: “By audition only”, “Must be able to read music”, etc. Can non-music-reading and special needs groups ever join in this wonderful experience?

Many people feel that brass bell choirs ring out some of the most beautiful sounds in the world. Whether this is due only to the quality of the instruments themselves, played in harmony, with shimmering overtones, or whether the symbolic emotional significance of so many people joining in complete harmony plays a part, the truth is that few leave a bell choir performance untouched by this unique sound. You will be able to hear some of the beauty of these bells by listening to sample recordings of the famous Raleigh Ringers performing compositions and arrangements such as “Buglar’s Holiday” (Leroy Anderson), “In the Bleak Midwinter” (Gustav Holst), “Free Bird” (Lynyrd Skynyrd), O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Sing We All Noel”, as well as other French and English Carols, online right now at http://www.rr.org/gallery/audio/sing.aspx#12 .

Being part of a handbell and/or handchime choir, ringing out melodious tones and magnificent music, is such an enjoyable and, for some, therapeutic experience that it should rightfully be open to all people, of any age or ability. Yet often, there are significant barriers to membership in many groups: “By audition only”, “Must be able to read music”, “Must have ringing/bell choir experience”, “Experience in reading Handbell music required”. Certainly, advanced handbell groups have the right to accept only highly capable new members, but what of those who are too young, too elderly, too musically uneducated, too physically or mentally challenged to be able to participate in these exclusive groups? Can non-music-reading and special needs groups ever join in this wonderful experience?

Indeed, there are a few organizations and therapy providers that offer this life-changing experience to special needs groups, but they are still few and far between.  The Mission statement of the premier group dedicated to promoting everything about handbell ringing in America, the AGEHR or American Guild of English Handbell Ringers, simply reads: “Dedicated to advancing the musical art of handbell and handchime ringing through education, community and communication”.

You must research the mission statements of some of the AGEHR divisions, such as Area VII, (Minnesota, North and South Dakota and Wisconsin) to see how they are trying to help those with special needs: “Area VII reaches out to all, young and old, rich and poor, nationwide, beginning and advanced, whatever their special needs to make music and make friends, sharing out knowledge to unite people through a musical art.”  

Although there may well be many more that I haven’t yet found, this writer has so far discovered only one group within AGEHR that offers an organized approach, complete with seminars, training, scholarships, and the use of the real brass bells, to teach those who are non-music-reading. The group has a website where they disseminate information on  “How to Teach Non-Music Readers and the Special Needs Communities”, at http://www.agehr.org/events/hafe.asp .

There are a few music therapists who understand the transformative power of bell choir membership, who advertise their services online, in phone book listings, or offer music therapy through hospitals and health care centers. But if you are a teacher, activity director or recreation director who realizes the enormous potential of handbell and handchime choirs to help children, special needs groups, or nursing home residents feel a strong sense of belonging and worthy purpose, then you may decide to start your own choir by using the plethora of color-coded metal handbells and teaching materials available from music stores and online, or you may prefer to use the Chord Method outlined in my previous article, 3 Easy Handbell and Handchime Methods Mean Everyone Can Direct and Ring, to direct your own group.

The major advantage of this Chord Method is that it enables you and your group to play any song or melody without need to purchase color-coded equipment or song books, allowing your choir to use handchimes, rather than the rather tinny-sounding colored metal handbells. (If you have the budget, you could even purchase a few new or used brass bells each year, to compliment your handchime set.)

Once you have your handbell or handchime choir set up successfully, the members will be delighted to offer their lively performances (sometimes called “ring-and-sings”) to audiences at nearby schools and senior facilities. Handbell choirs have become extremely popular in recent years. Now it is time to make this beautiful form of music-making opportunity more widely available, in addition, to all special needs and non-music-reading groups, “No auditions required”!

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