There are two terms I hear used consistently through out the handbell community, regardless of where I am and who is conducting. These terms are used at festivals, massed ringing session, master classes, and rehearsals across the nation. I am arguing today that as a community we remove these two words from our vocabulary and instead use words that are more indicative of the professional image we wish to portray to the rest of the music world. What are these two words you ask….
“Don’t forget to smile” has been shouted at me from the podium of every massed ringing session I have ever attended. Over the last 12 years I have been commanded to smile by countless clinicians from all parts of the country. Inevitably what ends up happening is that everyone plasters on their awkward am-I-doing-this-right smiles and the room looks like 100 deranged Nutcrackers playing bells. Within minutes the ringers feel stupid trying to smile and ring, and then revert right back to robotic, eyes-in-the-music ringing.
Now I know what the conductors are going for. Since playing handbells is a visual art form, the ringers should look like they are enjoying themselves while playing. But there is a lot more that goes into looking relaxed than smiling. Keeping arms loose, moving around, looking at the audience and other ringers, breathing normally, and relaxing the face are all things that going into making a handbell performance look natural. Plus, smiling only works on one type of piece. Should ringers smile through a sad or thoughtful piece? Of course not. The performer’s faces and body movements should match the style of music. But when “don’t forget to smile” is the instruction on the first song in the conference, ringers often feel obligated to continue smiling though the rest of the performance.
So, I would like to offer the following alternatives to “don’t forget to smile”:
- Look confident
- Feel the music
- Act natural
- Look comfortable
- Enjoy yourself
- You just won the lottery!
These directions aren’t as simple or straight forward as “don’t forget to smile”, but they offer ringers the chance to examine the music and come to their own conclusions about what type of body movements are appropriate for a particular piece of music. Speaking of movement…
From the Yiddish language, shtick is defined as, “Something you’re known for doing, an entertainer’s routine, an actor’s bit, stage business; a gimmick often done to draw attention to yourself.” I am going to guess that people’s opinions about shtick are as varied as the spelling of the word “shtick”, which is probably what makes it so dangerous in my mind. Shtick is added to concerts to make the audience laugh, but it is typically applied as funny costumes, over exaggerated gestures, or random sound effects. All this shtick distracts the audience from the real dangers of shtick. Nine times out of ten groups will sacrifice musicality or even right notes in the pursuit of getting the audience to laugh.
Even the best of us fall prey to shtick. When I was playing with Sonos Handbell Ensemble I was instructed to add shtick to a Jingle Bells Quartet we played toward the end of our Christmas concert. But what exactly everyone had in mind was foreign to me. Did the funny hats count as shtick? Did they want exaggerated movements? Was I suppose to interact with the other ringers? It wasn’t until someone showed me the previous ringers routine that I understood what was being asked to do. Which brings me to the point of this rant.
We need to view shtick as choreography.
Now I know, choreography is a scary word. We tend to associate choreography with professional dancers, but what we do every day at the bell tables is choreography. “You play F# on beat one, set it down on beat 4 and I pick it up and play it in the next measure” is choreography. Everyone pick up your bells at the same time is choreography. Cutting off together and not moving is choreography. Bowing while saying “I love handbells” to synchronize everyone’s bow is choreography. We choreograph more than any other instrumentalist because of the amount of cooperation that is involved with our instrument. So why should making the audience laugh be any different?
Next time your groups thinks that it wants to add schtick to a piece, STOP! First, determine what you want to convey to the audience. Then figure out the best set of movements to convey that emotion. It can be as simple as “play gong on beat two”, “high five your neighbor on beat one”, or “flip your mallet during this measure”. The important part is to pick a specific action, write it into your music, then practice that action into the piece. Once you do that movement enough it will become a routine, and then when you perform that routine in several concerts it become shtick. But this type of shtick will get an impressive laugh from the audience and not sympathy groans at an attempted joke. Plus, your group will continue to play beautiful music while the shtick is going on, which is what the audience came for in the first place.
So my challenge to the handbell community is to remove “Smile” and “Shtick” from your vocabularies and instead pick words or phrases that are more specific to the act at hand. Words may just be words, but they can have a powerful effect on our actions.