This is a question I have been struggling with the past couple months, for a variety of reasons. In most professions, being a professional means that you are being paid for the work you do. Merriam-Webster even defines professional as “relating to a job that requires special education, training, or skill; paid to participate in a sport or activity”. With so few ringers actually being paid to perform, is that an appropriate definition in the handbell community? What other ways can we define “professional”? Here are some thoughts on different ways to define professional in the handbell world:
1) “Professional” groups play hard music. This seems to be a common definition in the handbell community, with groups that regularly perform level 5 music being classified as professional. Using this definition, groups such as Bells of the Sound, Embellish, and the Houston Chamber Ringers would all be considered professional ensembles.
2) “Professional” groups use complicated bell assignments. By this I am referring to non-traditional bell assignments, where ringers have a collection of bells instead of just two diatonic notes. Kiriku, Sonos, and Arsis are probably the most famous ensembles in the bell world that use non-traditional bell assignments, but more and more groups like Timbre are beginning to use this style of assignments. However, this definition would leave out groups like the Raleigh Ringers who play advanced music by using more ringers instead of creating complicated bell assignments. As an example, here is Sonos performing the incredibly complicated and short “Hummingbird”. Notice how many duplicate bells are on the table (hint: there are 4 sets of bells being used).
3) “Professional” groups do not refer to themselves as choirs. Just something I’ve noticed, very few if any advanced groups use the term choir, instead opting for ensemble or ringers. I know I’m going to open a whole controversy with that statement, so let me know in the comments if your groups uses the term choir.
4) “Professional” groups get to sign the walls backstage at theaters. If you have ever been backstage at a big theater, you have probably seen the autographs by touring casts of different big shows who have performed there. Why don’t we ever sign the walls too?
4) “Professional” groups are paid. This is a tricky one, because I only know of one group in the United States that pays it’s members; Sonos Handbell Ensemble. Not even the Raleigh Ringers get paid (something fun I learned this summer while hanging out with them). With so few ringers being paid for the time they put into creating music, does this create a lack of professional handbell ringers? Or does this make the handbell community a philanthropic group of musicians who don’t mind producing music for free?
The reason I have been thinking about this so much recently is because I have the awesome fortune of performing with Sonos Handbell Ensemble this season. This is actually my second time performing with Sonos. My first time was their 2010 Christmas season. But this time I feel much more confident about my ringing, and much more comfortable with identifying myself as a “professional” handbell musician. There is something satisfying in finally being able to call myself a professional musician. I attended a performing arts high school where all my friends went on to Julliard and other amazing music schools. Back then I was never good enough on French Horn to go that route, so now it feels great to finally have an instrument I can be a professional at.
I still feel incredibly awkward introducing myself as a professional musician. Yes, I do get paid to play music now. However, society still doesn’t view handbells as a professional instrument which causes people to scratch their heads at the term “professional handbell musician”.
So here is my challenge to the handbell community: more of us need to start referring to ourselves as “professional” handbell musicians. If you devote more than a few hours a week of rehearsal time to handbells and perform challenging music, you are a professional handbell musician. If more of us start thinking of ourselves as professionals maybe we can get the rest of the world to recognize our skills (and start to pay us more).
Cover Photo: Derek with Marquise Alexander, Barbra Mienke, and Michele Sharik from the Sonos Handbell Ensemble in December, 2010.