Thoughts On Ringing A Festive Peal From Memory

Posted By Derek Nance on Jun 18, 2013 | 9 comments

Today’s bell performance is by the Alleluia Ringers.  From Concordia University in Wisconsin, the Alleluia Ringers are an a group of college musicians under the direction of John Behnke.  In this clip they are performing “Festive Peal” by Karen Thompson at a glass cathedral in Norway.  The piece starts off with a simple peal used in tower bell ringing, but builds into a short yet captivating piece.  I’m also a fan of the bass bell leg-echos towards the end.

The thing that drew me to the piece, however, was the fact the that the ringers are playing from memory.  Even though the piece is only a level 2+, the ensemble playing adds a level of musicianship to the piece that the ringers would lack if they were reading music.  You can see everyone in the group looking around and playing off of each other.  That level of connection is something most handbell groups lack.  On our trip to Raleigh, North Carolina, we saw many fabulous conductors conduct from memory, but rarely did we see ringers perform from memory.

Because Tintabulations, the group I ring with, is performing the same concert over and over again this season I have had time to think about memorizing music, both as a conductor and ringer.  I find conducting from memory incredibly exciting.  Once I can sing the entire piece in my mind, the rush of waving my arms to the tune in my head and hearing the group mimic it is intoxicating.  I was first introduced to conducting from memory by Dr. Mac, the band director from the University of Nevada, Reno, when he conducted my sophomore year high school honor band.  I noticed that he did the entire concert from memory, and from that moment on I was on the look out for conductors that conducted from memory.

Ringing from memory is a slightly trickier matter.  If you space out while conducting, you can just beat time until you remember where you are in the music.  But when ringing from memory, if you space out you run the risk of throwing off the rest of the group.  Never the less, I still think ringing from memory adds a level of musicianship you can not achieve any other way.  Since we have performed the same concert eight times now over the past two months many of our ringers have at least one piece memorized (I think Bryce and I are up to five or six from memory now). By not looking at the music, we have more time to watch the conductor, double check we have the right bells in our hands, make eye contact with each other, and connect the audience.

I had a piano teacher once who gave me a great piece of advice about memorizing music.  As soon as I would start to grasp a piece, he would take away the music.  I would fumble through a few times, but then I would start to hear the piece in my head and my fingers would know what to do without thinking.  Most of the time we think of muscle memory affecting our hands and arms while ringing, but it also applies to your eyes and brain.  If you learn a piece with your head in the music, when you want to play from memory you will not be able to because your eyes are trained to look at the music.

So here is my challenge to you: next rehearsal, never turn your music past page one.  Use the first page of the music to make sure you have the right equipment on the table and to get started, and then keep ringing from memory.  Just relax and let the music carry your arms away.  I guarantee you will make some mistakes the first few times you try, but once you get past those first few tries you will be surprised how easy it is to play from memory.