Introducing the National Honors Handbell Ensemble

Posted By Derek Nance on Sep 14, 2015 |


There’s a new opportunity for young ringers coming in April, 2016; a National Honors Handbell Ensemble.  The event will be hosted by the Stafford Regional Handbell Society in Fredericksburg, Virginia. While you may not be familiar with the Stafford Regional Handbell Society, you may be familiar with their premier youth ensemble, Ring It!.  Under the direction of Neesa Hart, Ring It! rocked their showcase concert at Pinnacle this past summer.  We got the chance to interview Hart about the upcoming National Honors Handbell Ensemble.

Handbell Brothers Blog: What was the inspiration behind the event? Are there similar events you used as models for this one?

Hart: This past summer, our premier student ensemble participated in Distinctly Teen. It was a great experience for them, and opened their eyes to so much more the instrument has to offer. They really benefitted from the exposure to other groups, other musicians, and a different director. I am very grateful to Nick Hanson for his excellent leadership of the group.

It also inspired us to resurrect a conversation we’d been having off and on for several years about a youth ringing event that gives outstanding teen musicians an opportunity to really grow musically beyond, perhaps, what even they thought was possible. To do that, we strongly felt that advanced youth ringers would need the opportunity to transcend their own ensembles. In every ringing ensemble, there are more experienced and less experienced musicians. The goal of the National Honors Handbell Ensemble is to identify the very strongest youth handbell musicians in America and bring them together for a weekend of rehearsals resulting in an astounding performance worthy of any advanced ensemble — youth or otherwise.

We took a look at other events for advanced musicians youth or otherwise, and found that both the Raleigh Ringers’ Virtuoso and Handbell Musicians of America’s Distinctly Bronze most resembled what we hoped to accomplish. In both cases, individual ringers are chosen based on individual auditions. They are assigned a position in advance and expected to learn the music before arriving for rehearsals. A world-class conductor leads the musicians through the rehearsals and performance. Music is of the highest level repertoire available for handbells. From Virtuoso’s model, we decided on a more formal final performance — held in the Washington Pavillion in Fredericksburg, VA, and a smaller performance ensemble — only 30 ringers on two sets of bells. From the Distinctly Bronze model, we chose to use an evaluation process for all participants, so they will receive individual critiques on their preparedness, rehearsal etiquette, work ethic, musicianship, artistry and performance as part of the ensemble. And from the non-handbell world of youth music — like band and chorus — we designed an event around a weekend of intense rehearsals, with the belief that when you’re serious about playing handbells, handbell rehearsal is fun. You don’t need free time!

HBB: The Stafford Regional Handbell Society already has a strong group of youth ensembles. How does an event like this fit into the organization’s long term goals?

Hart: From our earliest days as an organization, youth ringing was part of our fabric. We started as a children’s music education program. We didn’t even add adult ensembles until several years ago when some of our students’ parents wouldn’t stop bugging us about letting them ring.

So we have always been deeply committed to youth ringing. Like teens in other music programs such as marching bands or high school chorus, many youth handbell musicians ring all the way through high school, but then walk away from it once they enter college and adulthood. So we wanted to enter this national discussion the questions, “how do we create a fire in them that burns the questions in their hearts, ‘how can I even imagine a life without handbells?” How do we do that? What will create life-long ringers?

We employ a two-pronged strategy. First, we have a founding principle that says: “Kids are inspired to be excellent by seeing excellence.” When you take a kid to a Raleigh Ringers Concert or to a national event like Pinnacle, they see the instrument played at its very highest level and come home thinking, “I want to do that.” Many adults think, “I could never do that.” The National Honors Handbell Ensemble will provide that kind of opportunity for its members. To see and achieve musical excellence worthy of any advanced ensemble, youth or otherwise.

And second, we like to find opportunities to create in them that Handbell High many of us have experienced after something like a national event. Or Virtuoso. Or Dinstinctly Bronze. Its that feeling that has you driving home from Dallas wondering why Sirius doesn’t have a handbell channel. Or how you could pay your mortgage if you did nothing but play handbells. Or when all the church and community groups in your area meet each week, and how many of them you can join. How many national and regional events can you squeeze into your schedule and your budget. Do your children really need you at home on the weekends? That moment when the smell of Simichrome and the ringing of bells in your ears makes you think, “I never want to do anything else again, ever.” We felt that in order to do that, we had to tap into an experience that’s already a part of the music education culture of today’s teens. Any band or choral student already knows what an ‘Honors’ choir is. They are accustomed to the concept of All-County Chorus or District Band. The nomenclature has resonance with them. They come to an event like that expecting exhausting rehearsals, exhilaration, and challenge. All of the things we have designed the National Honors Handbell Ensemble to deliver. On top of that, they will come together with other extremely talented, extremely committed musicians to work together to create powerful musical moments. Just as many of us do in events like Distinctly Bronze, we hope they will have the opportunity to transcend what they previously thought they could achieve.

HBB: Why was Kevin McChesney chosen as the clinician?

Hart: In conceptualizing this event, talk turned right away to leadership. We knew we wanted a world-class conductor — someone who would be comfortable on the podium of any high level ringing event. We knew we wanted a name that was associated with excellence in handbell musicianship. And we knew we wanted a conductor whose reputation and name would appeal to youth ringers. We had a list of names that met all three criteria, but from that, we gravitated to Kevin McChesney as the top choice for a couple of reasons. First, Kevin is so prolific, our own kids have played his pieces for as long as they have been ringing handbells. Even our little beginning Ringtones play his level one arrangement of Jingle Bells each Christmas season. Among his published repertoire are several pieces that youth ringers (and adults) really respond to. I don’t think my bass ringers ever played a McChesney ostinato they don’t love! And second, we strongly believed his personal style would connect well with youth ringers. But the million dollar question was, “Will he want to do it?” Above all, we wanted a clinician who was excited by the concept and the opportunity. Not everyone is cut out to work with youth ringers, and not everyone enjoys it. While at Pinnacle, I had the opportunity to see him interact with my student ringers. He was so gracious when they were ‘fan girling’ at meeting one of their favorite composers. At the point that I saw him exchange a ‘high five’ with one of my bass ringers — I thought, “This is the guy.” So we initiated a conversation with him and found that not only was he willing to do the event, but he’d been conceiving of something similar for quite some time. He didn’t feel he really had the infrastructure to pull it off himself, so it ended up being the perfect combination of our joint vision, his skill, ability and experience, and our resources.

HBB: What do you hope participant’s get out of the experience?

Hart: We want each of them to grow, musically, of course, and to experience superior musicianship and performance. Working with a director like Kevin McChesney will expose them to more of what the handbell world has to offer. In every ensemble, there are more experienced and less experienced ringers. Because these 30 musicians will be chosen as the best of the best, they will be able to achieve musicality that may not be possible in their home ensemble. Many of us know just what that ‘musical mountaintop’ feels like. Ideally, I picture each of them in a car or on a plane on the way home, sleeping from the exhaustion, tapping a rhythm on their knee from that particularly difficult passage, with a contact list of 29 new friends, a slew of stories to tell at home, and head swimming with the idea that “I just want to play handbells for the rest of my life.”

HBB: Do you think there’s a reason we haven’t seen many nation wide events like this before?

Hart: Well, it’s scary to start with. Are people going to respond? Can we pull it off? It takes a lot of planning to make something like this happen. I think partly, we are just naïve enough to try to pull it of! Most ringing events for youth are the festival model — where an entire or partial ensemble participates in a mass ring. This is, in part, a financial reality. When you have to pay for a hotel and a clinician and a faculty, it begins to be cost prohibitive to have an event with a small number of musicians. You want to keep costs down, but you can’t afford to lose money, either. So it takes a lot of resources to make it happen. We are blessed to have those resources because we have our own permanent rehearsal studio that’s large enough for the group to rehearse, we own multiple sets of bells, and are able to meet the groups’ needs without many of the expenses most hosts would incur.

And practical realities aside, I think that in designing youth events that appeal to ‘many’ we feel we have to provide things like recreation or classes in things like cup-stacking, and line-dancing in order to hold their attention. When my student ensemble first arrived in Dallas, they were walking around the Hyatt Regency wide-eyed and excited despite a long day on the plane, unloading our equipment trailer, and the rehearsal we’d already had at an offsite hotel. Someone came over to meet them and asked, “Are you going to do anything fun while you’re in Dallas.” I immediately saw their confusion. They were thinking, “I mean, we’re going to play handbells for four days. What’s more fun than that?” So I think that at some level, we haven’t trusted our youth ringers to really rise to the occasion. We haven’t put a stack of level 4 and 5 music in their hands and said, “You’re going to rehearse this on your own, you’re going to get here and work through this in an additional 20 or so hours of rehearsals, and then you’re going to give the performance of your lives.”

Sometime ago, a discussion ensued on one of the many handbell lists I follow about ‘competition.” It’s an ugly word to many. In fact, Handbell Musicians of America’s bylaws specifically prohibit sponsored events that pit ensembles against each other in competition. So things like adjudicated festivals are frowned upon if ‘winners’ are chosen. Yet, in actuality, we DO have competitions among ourselves as handbell musicians — we have auditions for All Star groups and advanced ringing events. We have auditions for community groups. What is an audition but a competition? At some point, I think we need to examine our fear of the word and ask ourselves if we’re really accomplishing all that we can by limiting our thinking in this way. Not all competition is bad, and not all competition breeds ill-will. When I once asked, back when I was young and naive, about why we don’t have adjudicated youth festivals, I was told that, “We just can’t have a situation where one ensemble shows up at a festival thinking they are better than another.” Yet, we have “Bronze” choirs. And, to be honest, if I showed up at a handbell festival with my adult group and learned that Charlotte Bronze, or Fort Worth Concert Bells, or The Virginia Handbell Consort, or any other of the very accomplished groups in our art were present, I wouldn’t feel ‘bad’ that they are more skilled than I am. I just see it as an incentive to continue improving my own skills and musicianship.

As an organization, we firmly believe that inspiring youth ringers to dig deeper and work harder comes from setting a high bar for excellence and accepting nothing less than total commitment. To paraphrase Yoda, “There is no ‘try’ in handbells — only do.” As we tell our students, “No fear. No Anxiety. No regret. No caution. Just ring it.”

HBB: Anything else you would like everyone to know?

Hart:  The National Honors Handbell Ensemble seeks the top 30 handbell musicians in America. Many of you know one of them. Encourage them to contact us. If you can, help offset their financial cost of participation. What an encouragement if your community group or church would sponsor a young ringer who has earned a spot in an event like this. Pass the hat the next time you have rehearsal. Make their dream a reality. Do something for the future of handbell ringing. If you don’t know a worthy young ringer, consider being a sponsor of the event. It means the world to young ringers to know that you support them. Are you willing to congratulate them in a real and tangible way? Are you willing to underwrite a scholarship (only $185) or provide a meal for the group (Only $150) or even a gift of $25 which will help pay for certificates and supplies? All the details and facts about the event are available at our website, http://www.nationalhnorshandbellensemble.com We’re going to be here in Fredericksburg next April making incredible music with incredible musicians who happen to be age 13 – 18. Please consider helping. The great handbell musicians of tomorrow, the National Board Members for the next few decades, the handbell directors and teachers and composers of the future will never forget you.

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I’m certainly intrigued by the concept; if this had existed when I was in high school I totally would have gone. If you know anyone who applies or attends let us know because we will definitely be following up to see how the event turns out. Best of luck to the Stafford Regional Handbell Society and all those involved.