It’s Not The Size of Your Bells That Counts

Photograph of two musical/change-ringing handb...

This is a handbell. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From around fifth through tenth grades I was part of my church’s handbell choir. (If you have never seen handbells before, check out the Wikipedia article and this video.) I started in the children’s group. and then in seventh grade moved up to the adult choir. At that point, there were two of us young people there; everyone else was at least around our parent’s age. Handbell Guy’s mother, as well as mine, were both part of the choir. This was not a problem, except for the occasional time when the adults got a little rowdy and completely mortified Handbell Guy. Take note that neither of our mothers nor most of the choir (except us) were exactly “small”. These were middle-aged women and men, who generally had the extra rolls of softness to go with their years.

Our group would perform generally one Sunday each month at one or both morning services, depending on scheduling. Our standard apparel was what I call the Standard Concert Outfit — black pants or skirt and a white shirt. Sometimes we would change things up. Once we were doing something with a calypso beat, so we all wore Hawaiian shirts (never mind the geographical confusion.)

English:

The Methodist logo, with red Pentecostal flame. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If we performed on Pentecost, which is a bigger deal in the United Methodist Church than it is most other places, we would wear red for the fire. And sometimes when we just felt like being visible, we would all wear bright colors. As it so happened, we were performing that upcoming Sunday, so at our Thursday night handbell practice we asked our director what we were wearing that particular Sunday. The exchange between the ringers and the director went something like this:

“So what are we wearing on Sunday?”
“Oh, nothing.”
“That might be a little chilly in the sanctuary!”

Of course, by “nothing” she meant “nothing special”. However, everyone quickly started laughing and riffing on the idea. “Better make sure we have our music stands at a good height!” “What about using the table covers as dresses?” Handbell Guy’s mother, one of the larger members, added, “We’ll just use some strategically placed bells!” and held her two bells up over her chest, and then below, like some sort of musical bikini. My mother raised an eyebrow and chimed in, “You’re gonna need bigger bells!”

The noise sounded like someone set off a bomb in the room. Handbell Guy was utterly mortified at his mother and looked like he wanted to hide beneath the table. Everyone else, including me, was laughing so hard we were crying. Handbell Guy’s mother was beet red from laughter, (and probably a little embarrassment.) Even our serious members were laughing. Handbell Guy’s brother, who was reading at the other end of the hallway and down the stairs, came by to poke his head in and ask what on earth was going on. It took five full minutes to regain some fragile semblance of order and return to practicing. It was short-lived; all someone had to do was mention, “bigger bells” and we would all crack up again.

And that was how “Bigger Bells” became the pseudo-obscene running joke for a church handbell choir.

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In Worship Team, We Played for Esus

Sometimes you learn a new skill because you want to do something.  Other times, you want to do something, start doing it, and the skill is so integral to what you are doing that it just develops out of necessity.  The latter is was how I learned to understand chords on a keyboard.

My first musical instruction, aside from my church’s children’s choir, was in piano.  The teacher I was with used the Suzuki method.  The Suzuki books focus on “Classical” music (I use the term loosely to refer to non-modern concert music).  My training focused on intervals and scales, keys and the circle of fifths.  This was great, but a little inflexible.  I knew what sounded good together, but not why.  I could read music, but understanding how chords related to each other left me in the dark.

My first real introduction to learning chords in any usable capacity came when I joined my high school’s Worship Team during my freshman year.  I was supposedly a “replacement” for their current keyboard player, who was graduating in May.  At this point, I had only a very little guitar training (the short stint of lessons in “Fingernails“) plus a little done on my own time, and I was not yet familiar with chord sheets.  Worship Team was structured a bit like Suzuki in that it was largely based on playing by ear — either we knew the song from having heard it during chapel for years, or someone knew it from the radio (usually not me).  We would play what we heard, with the other bit being chords for guidance.  The “sheet music” we had was only pages of lyrics with chords printed above the corresponding word — or somewhere vaguely close, anyway, meaning that playing by ear was necessary, not optional.

One memorable example was from a song with which I was not familiar.  It had a whole page of lyrics, but for the verses, the first verse only had two letters over the first word.  G C.  That was it.  Not even an attempt to put the chords with the right lyrics.  Since the verse only alternated those two chords in the same rhythm, they just assumed everyone would know the song and figure it out.  I had to listen and watch the guitarists to see when they changed chords to figure out the rhythm, since I had never heard the original song.  They, of course, had zero sympathy for my confusion and utter fish-out-of-water feeling.  It was a completely different experience from my earlier piano lessons, where the sheet music held all the information I needed (or so I thought).

Learning the chords themselves was an experience as well.  I knew very basic chords off the top of my head, and could form the less common ones by using intervals.  For example, I knew that a C major chord was made of C, E, and G.  If I were asked for an F# minor chord, I would find F#, count up four keys for the middle note, then count up another three for the top, making an F# major chord.  I would then drop the third by a half-step to make it minor.  It was time-consuming, to say the least.  By that time everyone else was a full verse ahead of me, so I learned quickly out of necessity, a.k.a. the desire not to look like an idiot to my musical peers.

This arduous process does not even consider the chords I had never heard of before.  I could count out a major, a minor, an augmented, and a diminished; those were easy to understand, if not to form on the fly.  It was things like “C2” and “Esus” that left me baffled.  Then, of course, there were the less difficult but still unfamiliar things, like G/C and F#m7♭5.  Note that, while all the team members were quite skilled musically, I was the only one with relatively extensive piano training.  I was approaching keyboarding as a classically trained pianist.  They approached everything as guitarists.  Both approaches are musical, but they are quite different ways of thinking.  For example, I would ask our lead guitarist (electric, with his own separate, huge amplifier and equivalently sized ego),

“So what is an Esus?”
He would stare at me, obviously confused and slightly annoyed at my ignorance, — how could I not know such a thing? — and finger the chord on his guitar.
“Um…this,” and he would show me the guitar fretboard.
“Yes, but what notes are in that?  How do I play that on the keyboard?”
*shrug*

Obviously I was not going to get any help from them.

So for these unfamiliar chords, I had to teach myself my own, special way.  I was teaching myself guitar a bit, so I had a giant compilation of almost every way to make any given chord.  Open, barre, omitting certain strings, alternate fingerings, it had it all.  So, for the new ones, I would go and find the mystery chord in my big dictionary of chords.  I had figured out, on my own, that each fret was a half-step (yes, it took me a little while to figure that out), and I knew the open notes for each string in standard tuning.  Using that knowledge, I would break down the chord into what note each string played, so I had the pieces of an out-of-order chord.  Knowing the relative standard chord (C for C2, E for Esus, etc.) I could see what bit had changed and thereby figure out the non-inverted form.  If you had any doubt that I tend to do things the hard way, it should be gone now.

Once I finally had the non-inverted chords mostly straight and could play them without literally missing a beat, I worked out inversions and the most efficient way to move from chord to chord.  Not strictly necessary, but I thought it sounded better and it made me feel more skillful — not that anyone noticed.  (Why, no, I am not still slightly bitter…)  In any case, when my time in Worship Team ended, I was an ace at worship song chord progressions.

Liz’s Guide and Bell’s Busking Stunt

If you will remember, Liz’s Guide to a Successful Performance was conceived as a response to Pearls of Wisdom?  No., which itself was a response to the Joshua Bell busking stunt article.  (A somewhat complicated lineage, I know.)   Knowing this it is time to use the guidelines to analyze

What Joshua Bell Did Wrong

#0 Define success.
The original article does not mention a clear definition of success from Bell’s perspective.  Other people give opinions on what might have happened, and preparations were in place for massive, wild crowds, but Bell himself is not quoted.  From what I can glean, a successful experiment meant “lots of money”, or maybe “drawing a large crowd”, or even “being recognized”.  The $52.17 he made, few people who stopped to listen, and one woman who recognized him was not, apparently, enough, since everyone seemed disappointed.  Certainly, the performance did not live up to Bell’s picture of an ideal busking performance, but the definition was unclear enough that it is difficult to be certain.

#1 Know your stuff.
Not an issue, musically.  Bell has the skills needed to make a living as a concert violinist.  He played technically challenging pieces and played them well.  Busking is not just about musical skills, though.  It has elements of drawing people in, working the crowd, and eliciting donations.  While his music was top-notch, his busking skills were nonexistent.

#2 Know your audience.
Nope.  Well, probably not.  It does not appear that the planners took into account the kind of people likely to be in the subway at that hour — rushed, worried, thinking about work.  The typical businessman would have neither the time nor the inclination to stop and listen to some random busker on a violin.  That does not even consider the commuters’ musical preferences either.  If Bell knew his audience, he certainly did not change anything to accommodate them.  Keep that point in mind.

#3 Know your venue.
A more experienced busker would have known that area was going to be bad.  A quieter area, with more room and fewer crazy rush-hour people would have been better.  Upon seeing the video later, Bell was surprised at how loud his performance was, a small example of his unfamiliarity with the acoustics and setup of the performance area.  With multiple runs and multiple places, he could have found a great spot.  Of course, with such a stunt being essentially a one-shot deal due to his fame and other factors, multiple runs were impossible.  Still, one might take a few days to scope out a few different subway spots, choosing the best one for a one-time busking stunt.  A little effort would have been worth the results, I think.

#4 Know your instrument.
This is Bell’s strongest category, aside from his musical skills.  He was so attached to his own precious Stradivarius violin that he insisted on using that particular instrument, even knowing that it is valuable, easily damaged, and irreplaceable.  In a pre-stunt interview, he showed off the worn spots in the varnish, showing how it had not been restored and therefore its original sound was intact.  He chose to take a taxi three blocks to better protect his violin in transit.  His love and respect for his instrument shines clearly.  Five stars for Bell.

#5 Know yourself.
I am not sure about this one.  Bell knew that he was willing to give it a go, probably as a fun little diversion, but he was not aware of his limitations.  Even such a seasoned performer had confidence issues in the face of rejection.  Everybody is entitled to that — who wouldn’t feel that way, being used to a much warmer reception?  That said, I think Bell could have prepared more mentally for the situation.  Also, he did not seem to realize the kind of performer he would need to be to draw a crowd.  He assumed that his musical skill would be enough, not knowing that he would need people skills, a good venue, and maybe a different repertoire.  He was unaware of his limits as they applied to busking.  While this ignorance did not hurt his playing ability, it meant Bell was mentally unprepared for the different environment and could not adapt to it, even if he wanted to.  Pearls of Wisdom?  No. suggested that  Bell should stick to the concert halls, where his skill set is better and he is more comfortable.  Though this approach runs the risk of boxing him into the “concert violinist” role, it is not without merit.  Experiment endlessly, but when it comes to money, “Play to your strengths” is some of the best advice I know.

#6 Adjust accordingly.
This is where Bell went wrong. 
 Bell failed to adapt to the new environment, simple as that.  Instead of experimenting to see what would garner him better results, he continued doing the same thing — the same kind of music, similar length, same place, same time.  Again, this experiment is unrepeatable, and I realize that.  However, it is possible to experiment within a performance, to adapt as you go along.  This is the heart of improvisation, of stand-up comedy, of any dynamic live performance: have a plan, then go with the flow.  To be fair, he may just have been entirely clueless, but I think he deserves more credit — and more responsibility — than that.

That is my two cents on the matter, for whatever it is worth.  Any thoughts?