A Common Problem; A Creative Solution; A Bit of Genius

By Steve Mazeau

     If bell choir directors were to create a list of their most nagging, non-musical problems, finding substitute ringers would probably be somewhere near the top of the list. Doesn’t the real world have an annoying habit of getting in the way of perfection? Here in Area 1, we are lucky to have the SnagASub program, a creative solution to this common problem.

About two years ago, Cindy McLean-Greeley and Gail Granum, at the time the Massachusetts State Chair, developed SnagASub, a network that uses a Google Groups on-line bulletin board. When a director needs a substitute to fill a ringing position, they simply make their request through [email protected] along with specifics of what is needed. Presently, there are about 65 directors and ringers who are enrolled in the program who can send and receive requests like this.

I live in Connecticut and I rang as a substitute, on and off, in three different places before joining SnagASub. Two of these choirs were not even Handbell Musicians of America members. I enjoy visiting the different groups, meeting new people and trying different music. I became a “SnagASubber” in April, 2017 which connected me into the system and allowed me to follow the communications within the on-line bulletin board. From these exchanges, it seemed like most of the activity was in Eastern Massachusetts, between Worcester and Boston.

In early December, 2017 I decided to set a two part goal. Part one was to visit all six New England states in six weeks as a substitute ringer. Part two was write about the experience. This would help to make the program more visible. My wife, Jan, helped me by making a plain white vest, with “SnagASub” spelled out on the vest in blue, iron-on letters. With each ensemble that I visited, ringers would sign the vest, and later I could wear it at special events as a promotional tool. As more people became aware of the program and involved, this would increase the pool of substitutes that the program could draw from.

My first opportunity was in my home state. Ed Clark, the director for the First Church of Christ in Farmington, Connecticut, put in a request to SnagASub for two ringers on Christmas Eve. What a warm and welcoming group I met in Farmington! Farmington is also a beautiful New England town and their meetinghouse, both charming and unique, was built in 1771. I ended up ringing their B4 / C5 position and Ed was able to ring the second position and direct; no easy task. They also gave me a Flamigni panettone, which is a type of Italian pastry, as a gift.

On January 18, I visited the Congregational Church in Cumberland. This is located in Cumberland Center, Maine and Sue Evans, the Maine State chair, is their director. My wife had wanted to visit the L.L. Bean “flagship” store in Freeport, and this is only about 12 miles from Cumberland. They rehearse on Thursday nights and I believe I was filling in for “Rita.” I don’t ring treble bells very much, but I found them to be not only a warm and welcoming group, but forgiving as well. In general, ringers always seem to enjoy meeting a “new face.” Jan and I spent the night at a bed and breakfast in Gray, Maine and finished our mini-vacation at the L.L. Bean store the next day.

I feel that Area 1 is also made up of smaller “sub-areas”, whether people realize it or not.  I would consider Cape Cod as being one such sub-area. While it is part of Massachusetts, Cape Cod also has its own unique identity. I found out they have their own Spring Ring too! I wanted to “ring a bell” on Cape Cod, and I got my chance on January 26 at a Friday morning rehearsal at the First Congregational Church of Chatham. Marilyn Sink is their director and her husband generally serves as her in-house substitute. He graciously gave up his position to me that morning. Marilyn also told me she is considering creating a community bell choir, made up of the many talented ringers from different churches on Cape Cod, to play more challenging music.

February 4 was Super Bowl Sunday and there was no mistaking the New England Patriots fans at Woodbury Union Church, Presbyterian, in Warwick, Rhode Island. Lorrie Simons and her bell choir rehearse on Sundays, after their church service. Since it was also the first Sunday of the month, my home choir had us ringing the prelude in Niantic, Connecticut. I told Lynne Floyd that I needed to duck out the back door right after we rang and then it took me a little over an hour to drive to Warwick. I think I walked in at about the middle of the sermon in Warwick, but received a visitor “welcome pack” including some popcorn and a “thanks for popping in” card anyway! Lorrie Simons had been to the Area 1 Winter Workshop in Amherst the day before and I learned how some techniques, including the mart-lift, were being taught differently now. I rang in two different positions for three different pieces with her group, and not only was it a fantastic experience, but relatively close to home too.

The final two states that I visited were New Hampshire and Vermont. On February 10 I was in Concord, New Hampshire for a Granite State Ringers rehearsal and on February 13 I was in Tinmouth, Vermont for the Tinmouth Handbell Ensemble rehearsal. Concord is the capital city of New Hampshire with about 43,000 people and Tinmouth is a farm community with about 600 people. It was interesting for me to see how they were different in some ways, but also how they were similar.

Joan Fossum is both the director of Granite State Ringers and also the New Hampshire State Chair for Area 1. Granite State Ringers hold an all-day rehearsal on a Saturday and in the morning the ensemble is divided up for “sectional” rehearsals: bass ringers, battery ringers and treble ringers. The three groups rehearse individually, under the supervision of a section leader to work on their own different problem areas. Then in the afternoon, the three groups get together and work as one. I had never seen this type of sectional rehearsal before. I spent about an hour and a half with the Battery ringers in the morning, but unfortunately couldn’t remain to see the final product after lunch.

Tinmouth, Vermont is located about 15 miles south of Rutland, a little bit west of U.S. Route 7. Brian Gottshalk is the director and Vermont State Chair, Pat Pranger, is part of the group.

Don’t assume that Tinmouth Handbell Ensemble has a “small” sound just because this is a small, farm town. When I was there they had me ringing in the G4 / A4 position, rehearsing music for the Vermont Spring Ring. This included “City of Stars”, the Oscar winning song from the movie “La La Land” and arranged for handbells by Ron Mallory. Their goal is to be able to perform the piece for the sharing concert. What a beautiful swing beat! I wish we could do something like this back home (Lynne Floyd: If you are reading this, the Jeffers stock number is MAP46261).

Visiting all six states took me 52 days, start to finish; a little bit more than the six weeks that I was hoping for. A word of caution however; this is NOT a typical SnagASub experience. No one in SnagASub is expected to drive 200 miles to attend a handbell rehearsal. Part of my motivation was that I wanted to explore Area 1 in a personal way. Actually, a distance of about 20 miles might be considered typical.

For me, it became an unforgettable, thought provoking experience. I came to the realization that SnagASub does so much more than just provide substitutes.

  • It is good for Directors – It helps them fill gaps in their line-up
  • It is good for Ringers – It exposes them to different group dynamics and builds their confidence
  • It is good for Area 1 and its subareas – It fosters a spirit of cooperation between different ensembles.
  • It fulfills the Handbell Musicians of America vision – “Uniting People Through a Musical Art.”

All of that is really rolled up into one, neat, simple idea. It’s actually a bit of genius too, isn’t it?

If you would like more information about the SnagASub program, visit:


If you would like to volunteer to join “The Snag”, contact Cindy McLean-Greeley at [email protected] or Gail Granum at [email protected]. Include your name, personal email address and (optional) cell phone number. If you belong to a bell choir, also include your choir’s name, address and affiliation. You will be sent an email invitation to join, and once you click “accept”, you’re in!