On Saturday, I'll be performing in Tulsa at the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers Tulsa Fest. I won't be alone -- I'll be with the 12 other people in my church handbell choir, as well as 300 to 400 of our closest ringing friends (or more) from Oklahoma and Texas. I think there might even be a couple of 'em from Missouri.
We'll be leaving Oklahoma City at 5:45 a.m. so we have time to stop at the McDonald's midway to Tulsa on the Turnpike.
All of our choirs convene at the Maxwell Convention Center at 8 a.m., set up our bells, eat donuts and drink coffee, go to the bathroom, then take our places for three or four hours of rehearsals before we break for lunch. We're led by a nationally recognized handbell clinician, who changes each year.
Usually the clinician has written or arranged some of the music that's played at the festival, which means rehearsals can be fairly intense. Sometimes we'll hammer out a single measure 10 times until everyone plays it as the director desires.
The thing is, each of the handbell choirs has had the music for a few months. We get familiar with the music in our home choirs. Our group has been rehearsing five pieces of festival music every week since we got it. Some of the pieces are fairly easy; others are killers. Even though we've rehearsed this music until we're happy with it, the clinician may direct the pieces differently, with different nuances in dynamics, tempo, phrasing...
Our choir has played together for a number of years and has become quite accomplished, if I say so myself. We each have some other background in music which drew us into the handbell group. I was terrified when I first started playing, because it's unlike any other musical instrument or singing. Each person plays only a few notes, not the whole song. This limited range is hard, especially for people with a piano background who are used to playing ALL the notes in a piece.
In bells, we're playing about three to five bells each (with a few noteable exceptions; the highest soprano bells are sometimes played 4-in-hand. Essentially, our high-bell ringer plays 8 to 12 bells, depending on the piece.)
I haven't accomplished the 4-in-hand technique. I think I probably could, given enough time to experiment and practice outside of our rehearsal time. I know the player holds two bells in each hand, held perpendicular to each other. One rings with a "ring" motion; the other rings with a "knock" motion. Because of the way the clapper is attached to the inside of the bell, it doesn't ring while it's sideways. That's the short explanation.
One of the highlights each February is LUNCH during festival. Our choir has a tradition of visiting a small authentic Mexican restaurant where we mostly order a specialty known as a "wet burrito supreme." We will wait until we can put enough tables together for a dozen people. Sometimes, we have a pretty lengthy wait, and even if we get a little antsy, we're willing to risk being late getting back. (So far, we haven't really been late.)
After lunch, we rehearse for another couple of hours. Then at 3 p.m., the public is allowed in for our concert. During the concert, some of the bell choirs will perform solo pieces the other choirs haven't prepared. It's a wonderful treat to hear their special pieces. There are some high school choirs that can put the adult choirs to shame -- they have school bell choirs that really put the showmanship into their performances.
We conclude as soon as the concert is over, breaking down our equipment and packing the bell cases. It's a well-tuned dance, packing up the van so everything fits without shifting around.
We always leave Tulsa absolutely exhausted from standing up all day on a concrete floor and concentrating on the music. We whine and ache, but we can hardly wait until next February to go back.