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Handbell Choir Adventures of Musician with Hearing Loss

Handbell Choir Adventures of Musician with Hearing Loss

April 2011

Editor: Wendy Cheng, a bilateral cochlear implant user, is a viola student and the founder of the group, Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss (http://www.aamhl.org) . She joined the handbell choir at her Catholic parish six months ago, and wrote the following story.”


For those of us who live in the mid-Atlantic states, Ocean City is a popular summer tourist destination. Yet each spring, the halls of the Ocean City Convention Center (OCCC) is filled with the sounds of several hundred handbell ringers as they rehearse and perform for a spring handbell festival. The American Guild of Handbell Ringers (AGEHR) offers handbell festivals around the country, and OCCC is the meeting venue for one of the two spring festivals for Area III of the AGEHR. (Area III includes the states of Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and Pennsylvania).

As I drove on Route 50 eastward toward Ocean City on Friday, I was both excited and nervous. This was my first time participating at a handbell festival, and I had no idea what to expect. Uppermost in my mind was how to hear the proceedings during this festival. Although I am a bilateral cochlear implant user, my ultimate objective was to be able to hear the conductor in the beginning bell ringer group and the clinicians without having to lipread them regardless of where I was standing. Those of us who use hearing aids and cochlear implant know these hearing devices generally don’t provide sufficient sound input in difficult listening situations, and I would need assistance to hear the mass ringing rehearsals in a cavernous ballroom. I also didn’t know how big the rooms for my two bell workshops would be.

I brought my Comtek AT-216 FM system with me to the festival. http://www.comtek.com/at216.html

I thought there was a high chance I could use my Comtek system to plug into the sound system for each room, but wasn’t sure how it would be done. I had purchased a special 36 ” stereo mini-to-1/4″ auxiliary audio input cable for M-216 transmitter’s AUX input. http://www.comtek.com/cb3614.html

The 1/4-inch end of the cable would go to the auxiliary jack of the M-216 transmitter. But I didn’t know where the 36-inch end would go.

I arrived at the OCCC around 1:00 pm. I had talked with Reatta, the convention center event planner and we had arranged to meet up at the convention center front desk when I got there.

I paused at the front door into the building, and noted with chagrin that the glass door leading to the lobby featured a sticker saying “Williams Sound Hearing system available”. If I had known this earlier, I would have brought my Williams Sound neckloop, as I was about 100% sure they did not have neckloops available and I could not use the earbuds. Somehow in all the discussions over email about needing assistive listening devices, no one had thought to let me know that the OCCC DID have some form of assistive listening devices. But at least I had my Comtek system and I would figure out how to make this work.

Reatta introduced me to William, the sound person. As soon as William saw the special cable I had, he knew exactly what type of cable I needed to connect to their PA system. He found a long, heavy-duty audio cable and plugged one end of the cable into the “line out” jack on the wall. The other end of the heavy-duty cable connected to the 36″ end of my cable. (Apparently each large ballroom and the small rooms had several line out jacks . . . I just had to find where they were.) As it turned out, I would be able to use the heavy duty audio cable and carry it from room to room during the festival on both Friday and Saturday. I was so happy to be able to hear the audio I didn’t mind carrying the cable and the Comtek case around.

I ring handbells at a Catholic parish in Gaithersburg, and when my fellow ringers arrived, we had to deal with several issues. First, our assigned space did not have a table set up for us to put our bells. I told Debbie, the festival registrar, that we needed a table. Then the question arose as to where we would be stationed in the big conference room for the beginner ringers. There were about 63 ringers in the beginner group. I knew there was a line out jack at both the front and the back walls, so I would have been fine staying either in the front or in the back. However, the church group that was assigned up front decided they would prefer to be in the back. So my handbell group had the front row. Fortunately, no one in my group minded standing in the first row, and I had the luxury of being able to see the conductor comfortably out of the corner of my eyes while keeping my main focus on the music in front of me.

Friday evening we had our first rehearsal. We had prepared 5 pieces of bell music over the last 8 weeks. Dottie, our conductor, proceeded to conduct and give instructions.

“. . . starting at measure 60, please put a big ritard and a fermata”

“I own the last two measures of this piece. Everyone should be looking at me when we get to those measures.”

“Remember, time equals space. The shorter the note, the closer the bell needs to be to your chest. If you need to damp a bell quickly on the table, the bell needs to be close to the table.”

I was in heaven. It was such a pleasure to be able to hear the conductor’s instructions without having to strain to hear. I often think the lack of assistive listening devices in my childhood had deprived me of such ensemble experiences such that I cherish each and every moment that I can play music and enjoy participating in a musical ensemble.

I also signed up for a morning workshop Saturday on how to play more than one bell in each hand as well as an afternoon workshop on reading handbell notation. We had a snafu in the morning workshop when the clinician’s lapel mic malfunctioned. I was able to go to the registration desk and have Debbie contact William to come resolve the problem. With my Comtek system and the heavy duty audio cable, I was able to hear in both workshops too.

One additional problem that cropped up is that my conductor was reluctant to wear the lapel mic when it was time for us beginning ringers to perform. Her reasoning was that she was not going to be giving instructions during the performance, so she should not have to wear the lapel mic. However, she had already did mentioned she would tell brief stories about each piece in the program before we played each piece and she would be facing the audience. My fellow church ringers and I managed to prevail upon her to at least hold the lapel mic when she was telling the stories so I was able to hear her stories too.

The only downside of the entire weekend was attending the advanced ringer’s final concert. Imagine two combined ballrooms with over 500 ringers. The conductor had a lapel mic, but the lack of microphones closer to the bells made it difficult for me to enjoy the concert. Although it wouldn’t be feasible to mike all 500+ bells, I think I would have been fine if the first row of bells had microphones next to them. The lack of microphones near the bells for me meant that the sound was “lost” to me in the large venue. I remember I had brought a direct connect cable connecting my cochlear implant directly to the Williams Sound receiver (not using the neckloop) and could compare the sound quality of the William Sound to the Comtek. I think I liked the sound quality coming from the Comtek better. The Williams Sound receiver didn’t have the sharp and crisp sound of the Comtek.

Overall, I had a great time and I can’t wait to go back to Ocean City next year!