The Premiere and Backstory of "Failing Light"

The Premiere

The 5th grade handbell class at Redeemer premiered their semester composition project on the last day of class. From January to end of May, this group worked out rhythm patterns for the melody, devised melodic lines to fit the rhythms and selected chords progressions to accompany. Then all the pieces had to be fit together through experimentation and consensus. The titling process took about five weeks of collecting ideas, and then finally voting on the top 15 contenders.  The result is Failing Light, subtitled “The Forgotten Element,” an engaging Level 1 handbell piece for 3 octaves that incorporates many music theory topics covered in class.

Since the timing was ideal, handbell teacher Kathleen Wissinger, who owns a publishing company, asked her printer, as a favor, to print up “real” copies of the score so each student could take one home. The scores arrived at 11:15 Thursday morning, and Mrs. Wissinger’s husband delivered them to school at 11:40 … just in time for the 5th graders to practice with and play at noon!! In addition to the music piece itself, the score also includes a background story on how this piece was written, step by step. You can read it below:

The Backstory

By Kathleen Wissinger (ASCAP)
RCS Handbells Teacher

Almost every year, my 5th grade handbell class at Redeemer Classical School tackles a composition project. This year my 14 5th graders started on in January with rhythm patterns that we knew — creating sequences of patterns that we liked.

Two students each paired up with 5-note instruments to devise a melody based on these rhythms using the worksheet they had created. All the melodies were written on the classroom whiteboard, practiced, voted on, and, mixed and matched — all worked out collaboratively.

Soon afterward, the group decided they would rather play in a minor key; all the Bs, Es and As were designated as flats.

The 5-note melody was expanded to include an A flat — one ringer thought it sounded better to have the melody reach a little higher. While I guide the process and give suggestions, I try to let the students make as many decisions as possible. New ideas are weighed and decided on by consensus.

Time to add the accompaniment chording

They really wanted the piece to have Singing Bell chords throughout, but after practicing that for about 24 measures, they were tired and decided an introduction with Singing Bell would be enough. (To create a Singing Bell, the player must hold the bell upright and rub a dowel around the edge slowly … much in the same way sound is produced with a wet finger on the rim of a wine glass.)

A “menu” of best chords was noted. Assignments were roughly blocked out. First, they played through the entire piece — an interesting effect, but it didn’t sound quite right in all sections. Because so much was going on, the middle trebles played only sparse chords in a “half note - quarter - quarter” pattern to mesh with the ostinato pattern. Some of the originally proposed melodic rhythms were used in the accompaniment patterns instead.

Now for a title

As usual, finding just the right titles involved a lively and sometimes emotional debate. We talked about how the piece made you feel, what visual pictures or stories the music evoked, and tried to match those feelings with descriptive words: “strong but a little sad,” “rising and falling,” etc. We discussed some interesting ideas like “Sluggish Sun,” “Lost Crystal Caverns,” “Winter Mirage,” “Mashed Potatoes,” and “Chesapeake Bay” to see if they truly described this particular piece of music, or if they might mislead or even confuse the expectations of the listener. We recorded many ideas over about three weeks and on our final draft day, narrowed them down to those I deemed appropriate, legal (no copyright issues) and properly interpretive of the piece. From a list of about 15 titles, everyone got to vote for three; then we voted on the top eight (vote for three); then down to five (vote for two); then down to the vote on the final three titles. The top two titles actually garnered almost the same number of votes, so first place would be the main title and second place was the subtitle.

We premiered “Failing Light: The Forgotten Element” on our last day of bell class.

This is always a wonderful experience for my students and for me. So many marvelous teaching moments and such wonderful creativity and passion. It requires a lot of listening, discussion and compromise on their parts, and, for my part, much patient guidance and Solomon-like decisions. But we did it all in three written drafts. We hope you’ll enjoy our piece.

Note from the editor: The sheet music and full article (with accompanying photos) will be available for purchase through Jeffers Handbell Supply.