It so happens that Simon's mother has lately taken up handbell tune ringing (or, as the rest of the world seems to know it, English handbell ringing). Last weekend we went to see her in concert with her group, the Alton Handbell Ringers.
This was an outdoor affair, part of the Endon Well Dressing festivities (a new folkway for me). And it was a bit of a baptism for everyone. In the first instance, the whole ringing handbells outdoors is always less than satisfactory. Handbells are quiet creatures at the best of times, and with the rather stiff breeze going, most of the sound just disappeared. We watched the nuances of volume and technique get quickly tossed aside as all the troupe just 'gave it welly' in any chance of being heard.
In the second instance, they had the wrong audience. The handbell performance came after a service, and it was pretty clear that the assembled, er, assembly, were more or less treating the ringing like they would any service ringing on tower bells: a pleasant bit of background noise. Oh, people were listening, but they were also having a bit of a chat, a brass band was packing up its instruments, and later the ringers were surrounded by various curious people, who gradually moved in closer and closer....
Now, as change ringers, that is exactly the kind of audience we want. We just stand there in a circle and ring stuff, and hope no one tries to talk to us. We want to be the background noise. I have memories of a wedding where the guests were meant to process outdoors through a band of handbell ringers. What actually happened was that the whole audience stayed put and listened to the touch. Then no one quite knew what to do next. Change ringing with that kind of audience feels very exposed. But in fact, for this concert (and it was a concert), that was the audience they needed.
Nevertheless, it was a lovely performance and interesting to watch. I decided that pieces specially arranged for handbells were generally nicer than those that weren't. I also decided these two modes of ringing had more in common that one might at first think. In ringing a melodic piece, you, as a member of the ensemble, only ever play a part of the tune, (one or two notes of it when they come up), and have to count precisely in order to put those notes in the correct place. But you also need to gain a feel for the overall piece in order to help you ring as a group instead of as just a bunch of individual notes.
Ringing a pair of handbells to a method involves similar narrow and broad thinking at the same time. I confess, though, that I think ringing changes is easier. I don't fancy keeping track of bar after bar of counting in between ringing my bell. At least with a change ringing pair, you know you are ringing with reasonably regular frequency.