In his 22 years at Landon School, Handbells instructor Jim Kreger has helped the Handbells program grow from a modest enterprise to a popular performing arts option comprised of six groups, four in the Middle School and two (Intermediate and Advanced Ringers) in the Upper School. In the blog post that follows, Kreger explains why he and the students he teaches have come to love handbells, not just as a form of musical expression but also as a way to learn teamwork and independence.
Handbells differs from the other musical options at Landon in one very important respect: The boys can’t take the bells home and practice, so really the only time they have to learn and develop their skills is the time in class when they play together. I think the boys really like this teamwork aspect of it. If you don’t play your part, no one else is going to play it for you. It would be like having a piano with three or four keys broken and you’re trying to play a song, but those notes are always going to be missing. The kids have to take personal responsibility for playing their notes. And they have to be able to count rhythm really well because they’re not playing every note. They have to fit in at the right time, so they need to be really attentive and focused.
The boys I teach now are very good at all of these things. We went to the OrlandoFest competition in Orlando, Florida, two years ago, and the boys got the highest scores possible. They also perform at the WISH (Washington Independent School Handbells) Festival and have been selected from dozens of groups to perform solo pieces at regional festivals. (Click the photo below to see our Middle School ringers in action.)
Because the boys are so talented, I’m trying something totally different with them this year. I spent all of their Middle School years trying to get them to watch me, to stay with my beat. With the Advanced Ringers this year, I’m trying to have them perform as much as possible without me. They really have to listen to one another. They have to decide how they are going to start the piece together without anybody talking. They have to get the tempo right. They have to cut off at the end together. If there are tempo changes within the piece, they have to determine who’s going to lead that change of pace. They have to take that leadership upon themselves and really listen to and connect with one another. It’s great to teach them to be more independent, to not rely so much on the teacher in front of them. It’s a good lesson as we prepare these guys to go off to college.
I love watching kids come in on their first day when they have to learn how to pick up one bell, and then watching to see what they do six years later. It’s amazing to see the progress they make. In the end, handbells is just a lot of fun, and the class dynamic is so unique. You have 15 boys all standing in the front row. There is no back row. Everyone has to participate. And the best part is that they want to participate because they enjoy it as much as they do.