Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas

Ding! Dong! Ding! Dong!
Hark how the bells
Sweet silver bells
All seem to say
Throw cares away
Christmas is here
Bringing good cheer

Holiday music both expresses and amplifies the joy of the Christmas season for me.  While I rapidly tire of the shopping mall muzak played at the holidays,  I love the real thing, be it professionally performed, sung by church choirs, by children, or by friends gathered around a piano.  

You know-- real music by real people.

I recently had the joy of hearing a hand bell choir that was almost as much fun to see as to hear.  Each member of the choir, garbed in festive red shirts and soft black gloves had three or four bells to play.   Hand bells are not solo instruments; there isn’t a lot you can do with three or four bells, each of which plays just one note.  But together they comprise one instrument.  It is like each person is assigned  a few keys on the piano --  together all the notes are covered but no one person can make music alone.

Hand bell choirs are remarkable instruments of trust and community.  Each person must work independently, but with a keen ear to what everyone else is doing.  No one can cover someone else’s missing note, because no one else has the right bell.   Each person has to be ready to play their note at exactly the right time with consistent volume and tone.  Each member of the bell choir has to measure the passage of time alike - the same number of beats at the same tempo, as if all shared a common heartbeat.

While all members of the choir have to measure time equivalently, they clearly have different ways of experiencing it, which I have loosely classified into three distinct styles.

There are the mathematicians, precisely counting each beat.  You can watch them move their lips, silently counting 1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4…

Then there are the economists.  These players exhibit an economy of motion so pronounced that they barely move at all.  Concentrating intensely, they stand rigid, waiting for the moment to ring their bell with a precise and efficient flick of the wrist.

The dancers move enough to make up for the spare motions of the economists.  They don’t count with their minds, but instead their entire bodies swing, sway, and bounce with the beat.

The dancers must drive the economists crazy.  And vice versa.   Bell choir members must do whatever works for them individually, but also respect the disparate styles and techniques of others in the group.    They have to depend on each other to do their part,  so they learn to accept that there is more than one right way to play, that doing things differently is not necessarily the same as doing things wrong.  What really matters is getting the right tone on the right beat, by whatever means necessary.  And when that happens, despite personal differences, music emerges.

Since everyone has to do their part and can ONLY do their part, there are no stars in a hand bell choir.   Everyone’s notes are equally important.  It is just as important to be silent at the right times as it is to play out at the right time.  There can be no heroes.  No one can steal the show.   Each person becomes like a different vital organ in a single human body.   Each person is indispensable, but no more indispensable than anyone else.  Essential, but humble.

A hand bell choir is not about the individual, but rather the cooperative, communal, interdependent ensemble.  People play their individual parts, not for personal recognition but to contribute to something far greater than they could create alone. 

What a concept.

What if Congressional committees had their own hand bell choirs?  Would they find a way to make some progress? Maybe membership in a hand bell choir should be required of all of us.  It might help.

Today I am grateful for the joy of music, and especially human voices in song.   

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