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Life lessons through handbells - Deb Garvey

Compared to many ringers, I am a latecomer to handbells. As a music teacher, I strongly believe in encouraging life-long learning - so at the age of 40 I picked up my first bell during a six week ”try it out” session. Having been a music ed. major and being fairly proficient at piano and clarinet, I honestly thought, “How hard can this be? You only have 2 notes.”

I was in for a big surprise. Handbells are challenging. Yes, I might only have two bells on a particular song, but the challenging rhythms, intense speed, tempo changes and varied bell techniques keep me on my toes. The first time I rang in a church service, my bell rolled off the table onto a hard tiled floor. I picked it up and played on. I didn’t cry until after the service. LIFE LESSON #1 - keep calm and ring on.

Handbells have been therapeutic for me. When I went through surgery, chemo, and radiation for breast cancer at the age of 44, I kept on ringing. I never missed a rehearsal or a Sunday worship performance, no matter how bad I felt. When you go through hard stuff in life, lots is taken away from you for awhile. I was determined that cancer would not take away what had become a passion and a hobby. LIFE LESSON #2 - find your passion and pour yourself into it. It’ll bring moments of grace in the hard times.

Ten years after I started handbells, I auditioned for Twin Cities Bronze. My first concert was playing at Orchestra Hall with Doc Severinsen and the Minnesota Orchestra. It was absolutely frightening and exhilarating at the same time. Instruments sounded like they were supposed to. (I teach 4th - 8th grade band. Enough said.)  We rang the Hallelujah Chorus with the full orchestra and chorale. I had a tiny unintentional little solo at one spot. LIFE LESSON #3 - forgive yourself quickly for your mistakes. Others too.

Concerts always go quickly. Energy flows among the ensemble and to and from the audience. Handbells engage the whole body. My eyes focus on those dots and squiggles that seem to have gotten smaller as I get older. My hands move constantly.  Fingers feel the vibrations of the bells. My ears reach out to other parts of the ensemble. My mind interacts with my friends. (Handbells have brought wonderful people into my life.) My heart soars over what we are creating - whether it is bold, sacred, delicate or simply fun.

In 2009 I was diagnosed with breast cancer number two. I missed two concerts because of surgical complications, then finished out the season. Knowing that more surgeries were ahead of me, I “retired” from Twin Cities Bronze. After those surgeries, I didn’t think I could ring at a high level again. My long term prognosis was excellent, but I had chronic pain under my arm, made worse by repetitive motions. My energy level sagged.  I learned to be an advocate for myself in finding answers to help me feel better.

I didn’t know what to do with my “free time” without long rehearsals on Sunday evenings. I missed my Bronze friends. I missed the sound that I fell in love with. I missed the energy of the music. Mostly I missed setting aside the rest of the world to create something meaningful and beautiful. After lots of physical therapy, medication adjustments, massage, healing touch, and exercises I decided to re-audition. LIFE LESSON #4 - be persistent - you never know what joy is on the next page.

I cannot end without thanking my parents for all those years of paying for and driving me to piano and clarinet lessons. They have driven hundreds of miles to see me ring and make music. Their loving support has changed my life and I try to pass on the joy they found in music. I also deeply appreciate my husband, Don, who is my constant supporter and never complains about the time I spend making music.