Technique Tip - Integrating New Ringers

Have you ever had a person interested in joining your ensemble but they only came to 1 or 2 rehearsals and then quit?

Perhaps a new approach to integrating new ringers into an established group is needed. If we want our ensembles to be successful we need to begin with the success of each individual, especially the brand new handbell ringer.

Sink or Swim
Have you ever tried this? A new person walks in the door and rehearsal is ready to start so you hand the new ringer a bell and say "Ring it this way." and "Stop the sound by pressing the bell into your shoulder." Oh, and when you see this little mark "strike the bell into the foam like this." Or, in the middle of the piece holler out: "I forgot to tell you 'LV' means let vibrate!" WHAT?? Overwhelmed is how most people will feel! Don't do this to someone even if they say they have ringing experience.

Being the newbie can make one feel special but it can also be bewildering: the different language, the unknown techniques and apparent "inside" knowledge about how we do things, such as setting up, marking music, the kind of thing that separates new ringers from established members of the group. The best way to help a new ringer assimilate or "to absorb into the culture" of a ringing ensemble is through one-on-one meetings with the director where skills can be assessed and taught and crucial information shared about how your group operates. Or, it could be another patient, experienced ringer but the advantage of the director spending time is that you can become familiar with the new ringer. Knowing the person's experience, skill and comfort level will help the director be sensitive to how far to push the new ringer and what their comfort zone is. Plus, it is the perfect time to establish what ringing style you prefer, how you want techniques executed and your preferences on other elements of ringing and more.

Position for Success
If your new ringer is brand new to ringing you will want to choose the ringing assignment very carefully. Very skilled musicians who are transferring experience from other instruments usually make the transition more quickly and with less difficulty. Less-experienced musicians need time to gain comfort with a new instrument. Some things to consider:

Past music experience - if the person played an instrument, putting them in the same staff range as their instrument can be beneficial for tracking their notes. It also is mirroring their preference for lower or higher instrument sounds.

Physical limitations - some folks can't ring heavy bells for physical reasons and others have sensitive hearing and can't handle upper bells or multiple bell techniques.

Do reconnaissance - mentally ring through a potential ringing position to identify what skills and challenges it may present. Look for and either avoid, plan around, or plan to teach:

    • Syncopated rhythms, sixteenth notes or other difficult to execute rhythms
    • Transitions from ringing to other techniques
    • Bell changes or bell to Choirchime® changes 
    • Exposed sections where they will feel "out there and alone" 
    • Independent rhythms, where the ringer has a rhythm different than all others 
    • Parts where the ringer plays infrequently 
    • Notes that are buried in thick chords making tracking difficult

If possible, choose a part that is:

  • Busy - the busier the better! By 'busy" I mean rings frequently and consistently. It shouldn't be rhythmically difficult, nor use more than 2 bells. To learn tracking and rhythm a consistently busy part keeps the focus going and doesn't allow the new player time to get lost on the page. Avoid more than one special technique in the part and none is even better for the first piece. 
  • Easy to track – these are best: #4 (B4C5) or #5 (D5E5) depending on which staff they are comfortable reading. Next best is #3 (G4A4) and #6 (F5G5) because after that the notes tend to be harder to track and ring less. These positions are easy to track, don't stick out in sound as much as higher trebles and are not overly heavy for a new ringer.
  • Rhythmically simple - avoid sharing rhythms with other ringers as opposed to independently ringing a rhythm. For example, two eighth notes where the new player is ringing one of each pair: it's easier to ring them both.
  • Repetitious - for quicker learning and success. 
  • Centered/Battery – middle positions, especially not #11 (B6C7) or #1 (C4 D4) or #2 (E4 F4). Although many directors put a new person at position #11 this position typically doesn't ring enough and it really sticks out in sound if the person is lost. Usually these top or bottom of the choir positions are so sparse a new ringer has difficulty not getting lost unless they have very good music reading skills. Plus, less-than-busy-parts are not the ones that will sell how fun ringing is!

Note on bell sharing - if the easy parts include accidentals consider re-assigning those bells to the ringer in your choir who never has enough to do: we all have one! Usually the newbie is relieved to not deal with an extra bell.

Communicate - with the new ringer about your plans so that he knows you will not put him in a place he'll be uncomfortable or fail and remember to be open to his feedback.

Team Ring or Double a Part:

  • Duplicate bells: if you're fortunate and have duplicate bells, let the new ringer team ring or double a part to take away some of the pressure: they don't even need to play all the accidentals if they aren't ready for bell changes. This is the best way to assimilate a new ringer into a group because you can do it gradually. 
  • Doubling with Choirchimes: double with a Choirchime but keep in mind that the pure tone of the chime will cut through the sound of bells so put your experienced ringer on chimes or alternate instruments. Note: chimes shouldn't be used for special handbell techniques and learning transitions from ringing to techniques is a huge part of what we rehearse in ringing.

More Table Time
Other ringing opportunities that get the new ringer behind the table more will definitely be a plus. An invitation to help out in the children's bell rehearsal and ringing a part for an absent child is doubly helpful. I have had adults say it was great because they learned the basics of ringing and had a review of reading music right along with the kids.

New ringers are often critical of themselves and feel they let the group down if they can't ring a part given to them. The most important factor in guaranteeing a new ringer's success is by giving her the skills needed and a ringing assignment within her capabilities.

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