In 2013 I attended my first National Seminar in Portland, Oregon. At that Seminar I went to a round table discussion about university handbell ensembles lead by Jessica Westgard-Larson, one of the members of the Handbell Musicians of America Board of Directors. After that class, Jessica and I talked for a while about what a college aged ringing event would look like. Little did I know that three years later I would be at the first ever College Ring-In and that the event would be every bit as wonderful as I imagined.
The first College Ring-In was held in Wheaton, Illinois in January 2016. 26 ringers in their 20’s met to spend three days making music together. Organized by Handbell Musicians of America, the event was designed with college students in mind. Registration costs were kept low through the generosity of Gary United Methodist Church and community ensembles from across the country who donated money to provide lunch and snacks during the event. The date was selected to correspond with winter break. Morning sessions started slightly later than most festivals. Jenny Chapel, a university student studying art, designed the logo for the event. The event organizers (Brian and Greg, who are also in their 20’s) did a great job tailoring the event to college aged ringers.
In addition, the event’s clinician ended up being the perfect choice for the group. Michael Joy graciously accepted the position (for much less than the usual clinician rate) not knowing what he was getting himself into. I have known Mike for several years, but I had never played under him until the College Ring In. The first thing Mike did when he stepped on the podium was lead the group through a series of Qigong movements. Unlike normal stretches, I could feel the energy flowing through the movement, which then channeled into my ringing. As the weekend progressed and we practiced Qigong, the change it was making to our ringing was audible.
Ringing with the group was an absolute joy. There was an energy and enthusiasm in the group that I rarely feel when playing bells. The music Mike picked for us to perform was pretty challenging, but the group tackled it with grace and skill. I still can’t decide why I think the group played so well, but I have several theories:
- Theory 1 – Self Selection: there was no entrance requirement for the event, but the ringers appeared to all be very talented. Perhaps college ringers tend to be better than the average ringer because typically college ringers started early in high school and have several years of experience. Or perhaps the only ringers crazy enough to come to Chicago in the winter also happen to be better ringers. Or perhaps our advertising only reached our friends, who are all talented bell ringers, who then invited their friends, who are also talented.
- Theory 2 – Fearless Twenties: I learned towards the end of the event that some of the ringers were very new to ringing, so not everyone was an expert. Perhaps ringers in their twenties aren’t held back by the fear of ringing a wrong bell and more accepting of change. Or perhaps ringers in their twenties haven’t learned antiquated techniques that hold some ringers back. Or perhaps we are just young and crazy.
- Theory 3 – Selective Hearing: There’s also the possibility that I was just having such a great time that I ignored all the wrong notes. I’ve been known to do that occasionally.
What ever the reason, ringing with the College Ring-In group was an absolute blast.
One other unique aspect of the College Ring-In was an unpublished reading session. Unlike some reading sessions where the goal is for the composer to hear their work, this session’s goal was to give young composers direct feedback to make their pieces publishable. To do that, Phil Roberts and David Weck, who both happen to live in the Chicago area and work in publishing, came to the reading session. We read eight pieces by eight different composers, only one of whom had been published before. The pieces blew me away. From a complex, multi-tonal piece (think Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”) to a minor arrangement of a standard hymn tune to an original Celtic sounding dance, every piece was unique and interesting. However, the standout from the crowd was an arrangement of “Nearer My God to Thee” by Robert Lamb (who also happened to be my stand partner). His arrangement shifted modes each verse, growing closer and closer to major until you reached a glorious climax, then ending on a solemn refrain. The piece was both powerful and beautiful. Mike Joy, not usually known for being outwardly emotional, momentarily broke down crying while rehearsing the piece with the group. The connection between Mike and the room full of twenty somethings in that moment was palpable. I have never felt a group of ringers bonded so closely, hanging on every word of Mike’s tearful story in complete silence. I don’t think I’ll ever experience a moment as powerful as that at an event ever again.
Often we hear that “Young people are the future of handbells”. While I guess that’s technically true, something about the phrase doesn’t sit right with me. When I was standing there at the College Ring-In, surrounded by ringers younger than me (at 28, I was the oldest ringer there), it didn’t feel like I was ringing with the future of our art form. These talented musicians were playing bells with ease and grace now. My friend Marquise Usher summed it up well in an article he wrote for the Area 12 newsletter, “I experienced something completely different during College Ring-In. Young handbell musicians are the now of handbells and we are paving the way INTO the future!”
It is true that finding ringers in their twenties can be difficult. At Pinnacle in 2015 there were a handful of us. At Distinctly Bronze West in 2015 the only ringers in their twenties were in my direct group of friends who traveled there together. At Board Meetings and Area Leader Meetings I am consistently one of the youngest, if not the youngest in the room. But that doesn’t mean that young ringers aren’t out there or that young ringers don’t want to get involved. I hypothesize that the handbell world is much larger than any of us see or imagine. Capturing those ringers and bringing them into the mainstream handbell community is going to take some serious thought and design. We are going to have to re-imagine what the handbell community looks like and how it works. The College Ring-In is the first step in that direction.