In the fall of 2016, a group of handbell ringers organized by Steve Mazeau did something that perhaps hadn’t been done before–they played a concert at “The Big E.”  What follows is his account of the experience from start to end.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

By Steve Mazeau

Handbell groups usually follow the September to June schedule and many of the directors and ringers look forward to having their summers off. I am not one of those people. I like my Tuesday night routine. Still, summer is an opportunity to go outside my comfort zone, try new things and find renewed enthusiasm for what I like to do.
I’m also a square dancer. Although the square dance program has always followed the same September to June format, there have always been a variety of air conditioned summer workshops with different dancers and square dance callers. This gives us a chance to go and get a different perspective, meet new people at new places and learn first-hand a different approach to what we had been doing all year. I always liked the famous line from Star Trek, “to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
In the spring of 2015, as the regular year was wrapping up, I began to ask around to try to find a place that continued to rehearse over the summer months. Maybe I could work myself in as a substitute ringer until things fired up again in September. But it seemed that if any groups were playing over the summer, they were very well hidden. The Overtones Magazine was full of big-time summer events on the national level, but my time and budget really didn’t permit that. I decided that I needed to create my own summer handbell group, and this would mean getting an earlier start.
My square dance experience also helped me decide where our new group would perform its first (and only) concert; the Big-E in West Springfield, Massachusetts. Square dancing is the official State Folk Dance in Connecticut and our association of square dance clubs has danced on Connecticut Day since 1994 to remind the public of that fact. I knew the contact people and I knew the layout of their community stage in the New England Center. This year, it would be a matter of requesting two time slots instead of one.
I contacted Mobby Larson, our Connecticut State Chair in Area 1, in October, 2015, and her help was invaluable. By January, 2016 I had permission from Jean Degan’s to use the bell set and rehearsal area at St. Joseph’s Church in Bristol, Connecticut for the following summer. By that time, I also had an item in the Fundamental Tone newsletter looking for interested ringers. Next, I needed to find a music director. I contacted Rick Wood of Chime-In! Music with a Mission, and he recommended Samantha Beschta, his assistant director. While Samantha had considerable experience within Chime-In!, this would be her first time putting a group and program together on her own. Emails began rolling in and we were able to recruit 15 interested ringers from five different church and community ensembles that would be on their summer break. Once our numbers were tallied it was clear that we didn’t have enough bells. Samantha went to Chime In! requesting the use of their community bells as well as some percussion instruments. With rehearsal and performance spaces, bells, ringers, and a director in hand we were ready to go.
Starting from late June, 2016 and running until early September, our summer bell ringing group rehearsed on Tuesday nights for about 12 weeks. I collected $5 from each ringer at the beginning of each rehearsal and used this money to pay our director, and purchase music. In those 12 weeks I feel we went from being a group of strangers to friends. We solved a variety of rhythmic and rehearsal challenges as they occurred. Samantha turned out to be a great choice and many times the ringers would come to me with their positive comments. Our group of 15 “orphaned” ringers from all over the state worked together as a team and it was a positive experience that I’ll never forget.
We also had a well-attended concert at the New England Center at the Big-E on Connecticut Day. We played two pieces, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, and “Semper Paratus” which would probably never be considered suitable for the church setting that the majority of us ring for. Samantha picked out six other pieces from the Chime-In! music library. It was a great variety of easy and difficult (Level 2 and 3) music. I feel that we presented a significant handbell ringing event in front of a mixed audience that might not otherwise be exposed to our activity. Once the concert was over, we disbanded and everyone went back to their original groups.
In all, our summer troupe performed eight pieces at the Big-E, five of which I’ve uploaded to Youtube. They were “Fantasy on Kingsfold”, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, “Wade in da Water”, “Irish Tune from County Derry”, “Semper Paratus“, “Grazioso”, “Chopsticks” and “America the Beautiful”.
We’re going to do this again in the summer of 2017. How will you spend your summer vacation? The bells are there, the music is there, the people are there; what’s stopping you?