As we spend time searching for handbell performances around the internet, one group consistently impresses us with their musicality and technique. The Kinjo Gakuin University Handbell Choir is a mysterious group of extremely talented ladies from Japan. I say mysterious because we have never heard reference to them by anyone here in America, and all of their postings are in Japanese. After reaching out to them, we got in contact with Toshikazu Yoshida, the group’s conductor. Here are his answers to our questions.
HBB: When was the handbell program established and how did the idea first start?
TY: The Handbell Choir at the Kinjo Gakuin started in 1970. The handbells were first introduced to the school that year by an American missionary, Merle I. Kelly. Kinjo Gakuin is a private Christian school in Nagoya, Japan. It is an all girls school starting from the junior high school up to a 4 year University. The handbell program started in the junior high school and continued on to high school and then to the University. Many of the ringers in the University have started ringing in the junior high handbell choir, where they learn the basic handbell ‘ringing’ techniques. Most University ringers will have had six years of handbell choir experience when they start ringing with the University choir.
HBB: Are the students in the choir for fun or is it part of their college requirements?
TY: The handbell choir at all levels is on a voluntary basis. It is considered to be part of the extra-curricular activity in the school program. It is not a requirement of any kind in the school system. This is the same in MOST schools in Japan.
HBB: Do you ring Malmark or Schulmerich and how many octaves? Any other bells/chimes/toys?
TY: Besides the Kinjo Gakuin, there is the PRIME which the members are all alumni of the Kinjo Gakuin University Handbell Choir. (the performances on your blog such as the Glenn Miller Classics and the Disney medley are by PRIME). The University Choir rings Schulmerich Bells (one 6 octave set and one 5 octave set with one Malmark 5 octave Choirchimes) PRIME uses Malmark Handbells (one 7 octave set and one 5 octave Choirchimes). The lower 7th octave bells are shared among the University and Prime. Other instruments are used in accordance to the music they will ring at concerts and performances usually rented or borrowed. The Junior High School and High School each own multiple sets (handbells and handchimes) of both Malmark and Schulmerich.
HBB: How often and long do you rehearse and during those rehearsals, what is the typical warm-up routine?
TY: I am not sure about the junior high handbell choir’s warm-up routine, but I have heard that they start the rehearsal by going over basic ringing techniques such as the rotation motion etc. At the University Choir, there is no such routine that the conductor requires, since the rehearsal is basically scheduled by the ringers. During the school year, they will gather for practice 1 to 2 times a week. Rehearsal starts at 4:45PM and lasts till 7PM. Before major performances, the group will get together every day except Sundays.
In the junior high and high school levels, since it is an extra-curricular activity, they will get together every day after school for are shorter period per rehearsal. (treated just like the sports practice after school)
HBB: Finally, is there anything else that you do different than other choirs that has helped achieve such a high level of skill?
TY: There is a tradition in the choir(s) where the seniors will train and teach the younger ones techniques, discipline and the spirit of ‘getting better’. This, actually have kept the standards at the level you see in our performances. We are still in the ‘learning’ process and pursuing to become a better musician and choir.
Difficult sections in the music will be practiced on their own before the conductor comes in. The conductor will focus on making music after all the notes are there.
Each ringer will always take notes from the conductor, whether they are ringing that part or not. This will naturally create the ‘bond’ to create music.
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The last response is what really sets these ensembles apart. To me, the most important take-away is that the ringers practice their own parts before the director comes in to work on the musicality. I think I just heard a handbell director shouting AMEN! The biggest hurdle is the lack of instruments at home to practice on. What has your ensemble done to help enable individual practice?
Also, how many directors out there would kill to have students consistently from junior high to college? I found it very interesting that the younger students play bells daily and treat is as others would a sport. If only there were more places like this! My high school was lucky enough to have a handbell class in the curriculum (thanks to a strong handbell advocate, and amazing director, Marshal Townsend) which I attribute much of handbell passion to. What stood out to you about this program? Are there any comparable academic programs you know of? Let us know in the comments!