I first saw Stomp in 2002 on a high school band trip in San Francisco, and I was mesmerized. Created in 1991, Stomp and it’s various spin off shows have been entertaining audiences with its unique music for over two decades. If you’ve never seen Stomp, I know you’ve seen the concept. Everyone seems to be “Stomping” now, from your favorite amusement park to your school’s talent show. But what is it about Stomp that makes it so catchy? And more importantly, what as bell ringers can we learn from this show’s popularity? Here are my top ten things every bell ringer and musician can take away from Stomp.
#10: Always have a back-up plan. You’ll notice in some of the videos below that performers routinely break instruments while they are performing. But you’ll also notice that they never skip a beat. They just hold out their hand and a new broom or stick comes flying on stage from a techie in the wings so the show can go on. Be sure to always have a plan for if you miss a page turn or forget to change bells.
#9: Use the fact the audience doesn’t know the instrument to your advantage. Below is the famous opening broom routine. If you haven’t seen it before, try and list all the different ways in your head you can think of to make music with a broom. Then, as you watch the video, notice how the performers almost “accidentally” discover new ways to make music, drawing the audience in. Most audiences at bell concerts aren’t familiar with the instrument. Instead of explaining every technique to the audience before the start of each piece, let the audience discover along with the ringers new and interesting sounds the bells can make.
#8: When being funny, stay in rhythm. There are many times in bell music when one ringer will have a “solo” or some part that makes them stand out. Go ahead and take advantage of that moment to draw attention to yourself, but never forget that your first job in a bell ensemble is to stay with everyone else. Otherwise you just look stupid.
#7 Make a conscious decision about the instruments you use. Stomp might look like a collection of junk on stage, but every single piece was chosen for it’s pitch and timbre. Just because you practice at an elementary school that is fully equipped with all sorts of percussion instruments doesn’t necessarily mean that you should perform with percussion at a concert. Be sure every instrument is in tune with each other. During the opening of their TV special “Stomp Out Loud”, even though they appear to be performing on junk, you never hear the screeching noise typically associated with piles of junk being played because each piece was specifically tuned for the piece.
#6: Even professional musicians play the plungers. As handbell players, we sometimes are not considered professional musicians because of the instrument we choose. But remember that these professionals played plungers on Broadway for over 2 minutes and won awards for it.
#5: Keep every night fresh. Many times we will play the same music from season to season because there is never enough time to learn a brand new program each time. Try adding a new dynamic, tempo, pause, note, or cut to a piece to keep yourself and the audience excited. Here is one of the cast members describing how after 20 years Stomp is still a fresh and exciting show every night.
#4: Never complain about the bass bells being too heavy. After watching these guys perform with steel drums attached to their feet, I feel like I can no longer complain about playing a C3.
#3: You don’t need a conductor to stay in rhythm. Much like bell playing, each cast member of Stomp only has a small part of the rhythmic line. Since there is no conductor during the show, everyone is responsible for keeping time with each other. If you watch their performances closely, you can see small clues certain cast members give to keep the group together. Learn who in your group you can follow to stay in time, or agree on who will cue a certain cord in a piece so that the group can play it together.
#2: Go big or go home. While Stomp may start with a lone guy with a broom, the show ends in a flurry of drums and trash cans. Your audience came to watch handbells perform, so give them all you’ve got.
#1: Rhythm is key to everything. Without a constant driving rhythm, Stomp would just be a bunch of actors banging on stuff. It’s not just about each musician keeping a driving rhythm, it is about the group pushing the rhythm ahead. Stomping is probably the closest art form I can think of to bell ringing because each musician only has one pitch that has to fit in with all the other instruments on stage to make music. Even more than internalizing or feeling the beat, the musicians in Stomp are the beat, moving with the feel of the music. After reading this post, I should never again see a bell choir that just stoically stands there at the tables. Get into the music, move around, and become the instrument. It doesn’t matter what you’re making music out of, be it brooms, bells, or plungers, the instrument is just an extension of you as a musician.
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