Michael Jackson, the king of pop, has to be included in a list of popular music, but there are very few bell arrangements of his music out there. Maybe it is the complex rhythms, intensity of the music, or the fear bell ringers might have to dancing and ringing, but very few groups have tried playing Michael Jackson. Luckily I just recently ran across this video of the Trinity University Handbell Ensemble performing “Smooth Criminal” arranged by Matt Hawley. Although there are only 6 of them performing, they manage to capture the essence of Michael Jackson’s music. I am a particular fan of the chorus, where they use an antiphonal chime/bell line to make the chorus as catchy as the original. Praise also has to be given to the high bell ringers for managing to almost get all the fast repeated notes in the right place. They were much closer than I would have been.
A while back, some of my friends made me watch Michael Jackson’s This is It, the documentary that was made about his last concert tour rehearsals. Until that point I never really stopped to consider just how amazing of a performer Michael really was. In the documentary you can see him work with the bass player to get the bottom of a piece to groove just right, then turn around and work with the dancers to perfect their moves. He knew what every performer on his stage was doing, and he knew exactly what he wanted the finished product to be. Rarely, I feel, do I get to work with a performer who has that deep of a grasp of what they want the entire show to entail. Watching him has made me reconsider how I approach our group’s concerts. No longer am I content with just showing up and playing good music. Now I always think about how the pieces flow from song to song, how the group members move around the space between numbers, where in the room the lighting draws your attention, having professional looking programs, when is it appropriate to bow, how we pick up our bells, and what music to have playing as people enter and leave. Michael Jackson’s shows were an experience, not just a performance, and I now I try to make our concerts feel the same way.
If you want to watch some spectacular 80’s pop dance moves, here is the original music video for “Smooth Criminal”, released the year I was born.