For one weekend, 28 of the best ringers in the country descended upon Raleigh, North Carolina, to put on the performance of a life time, and Bryce and I were lucky enough to be a part of it.
The Virtuoso Experience is the brain child of Dave Harris, conductor of the Raleigh Ringers, and Dr. William Payn, handbell clinician and composer extraordinaire. The weekend was designed to be an intensive ringing experience, culminating in a performance with the Raleigh Ringers in front of a paying audience. Participants auditioned back in December via DVD, were notified in February of their acceptance, received the music in March, and spent the past few months preparing on their own. The 8 pieces chosen for Virtuoso ranged from mildly difficult (“Antiphonal Flourish” by William Payn) to pretty difficult (“Fountainhead” by Donald Allured and “Amazing Grace” arranged by Dean Wagner) to insanely crazy (“Whitewater Chop Sticks” by Marcia Murphy and “Wizards in Winter” arranged by Hart Morris). We also debuted a brand new piece by William Payn fittingly entitled “Virtuoso”. I learned this weekend that if you want to stump even the best ringers in the country, take an easy section and change the key signature to F sharp major. Even at the dress rehearsal we still could not all get the right bells in our hands.
The thing that struck me most when we first met up as a group on Friday morning was the diversity of participants. There were people there from groups everyone would recognize (Bells of the Sound, Bells in Motion) and there were people there who only did solo ringing because there was not a community group in their area. Some of the people there were college students, while some made their living working with the bell manufactures, while one was an actual rocket scientist for NASA. Even Danny Lyons, the guy who made a name for himself by performing 8-in-hand, was part of the group. 16 states in total were represented at the event.
Virtuoso was designed to be a performance experience, not just another handbell clinic. Right from the start Dr. Payn pushed us to be performance ready, assuming that we had worked out the bell changes and rhythms before the event started. The rehearsals on Friday and Saturday were some of the most mentally exhausting ringing I have ever done and each night I got back to the hotel with my brain fried. On the blog here we have talked about the lack of professionalism in the handbell community, but everyone in this group was a true professional. Everyone came with their music prepared, no one ever made the same mistake twice, and we all shared bells and parts to get the music as clean and polished as we could.
Speaking of professionals, the Raleigh Ringers were amazing hosts. They took us under their wing and made sure we had everything we needed. They even let us perform “Wizards in Winter” with them on stage (which required 6 sets of bells because each table needed two sets of bells on it due to all the doubled notes). The volume produced by 40 ringers playing Wizards at full volume was spectacular, and I tried to enjoy listening to it when I was not focused on trying to get my two notes into those insanely fast runs. They even let us help pack the big van!
Virtuoso was different than any handbell event I had ever attended. Unlike other advanced handbell clinics, the pressure of a big final concert kept us focused and made us pay attention to every detail. We had to work out chorography for moving bells between pieces smoothly, stage entrances and exits, and how to bow at the same time.
I really hope the Raleigh Ringers continue to host Virtuoso events in the future. It was exactly the type of challenge I was looking for as a musician. I left inspired to go home and push our bell group and myself even harder and farther. The experience is not for the faint of heart, but those brave enough to participate will come out better musicians in the end.
On Monday while we were waiting for our flights home, Cindy from the Raleigh Ringers took some of us out for a true Southern meal complete with deep fried pork and banana pudding. We sat around laughing about stupid things we had done while ringing and gossiping about the latest episodes of Doctor Who like we had been a family for years.
If you want to see more pictures of the weekend, the Raleigh Ringers uploaded a bunch to their Facebook Page.