A Ringing Disagreement : Hand-Bell Choir Follows Leader Off Campus After Dispute

Times Staff Writer

The sound was pure.

Sixty-four bronze bells, ranging from tiny sopranos less than an inch in diameter to 22-pound basses 14 inches across, were carefully stretched out on a long table covered with black cushions.

In the hands of a line of intense-looking musicians, the bells sounded a delicate tune.

The results brought smiles to the faces of bystanders. There was a clear, tinkling rendition of the "Brandenburg Concerto" by J.S. Bach, and a gently harmonic performance of a piece called "En Bateau" by Claude Debussy.

"Do we have all the bells covered?" director Ardis Freeman asked, glancing from one end of the line to the other.

After some discussion, a few minor adjustments were made. "He's a bell hog," joked one of the musicians, referring to a colleague who had attempted to play more bells than he could handle.

It Gained National Recognition

There was a time when the Long Beach group had more concert bookings than it could handle as well. Known then as the University Handbell Choir, it was part of the curriculum at Cal State Long Beach and played to an estimated 15,000 people a year.

After nearly a decade of effort, in fact, the choir had achieved national recognition and become something of a local institution, most notably through its participation in the university's annual Christmas Winter Festival at the city's historic First Congregational Church.

But all that is history. Caught in the middle of an emotional sexual-discrimination dispute between its director and the university, the choir chose to follow the director off campus after her teaching contract was not renewed. And although its weekly rehearsals at an Artesia church are well-attended by members, Freeman says, the future of the group--recently renamed the Pacific Handbell Ensemble--remains unclear.

"Our concerts were sellouts," Freeman said. "The students (outside the ensemble) are the ones paying a high price by not being able to hear the choir. We really belong at the university."

She Founded the Group

It was Freeman, in fact, who first brought hand-bell music to the CSULB campus in 1978. A former music specialist in the Torrance Unified School District, she had used hand bells to teach children who had little musical training.

At the university, where she was hired to teach classes in music education, she continued that work. "I introduced hand bells in class as a way of educating musically," Freeman recalled, "and the students were so enthusiastic that they asked me to start a choir."

The idea took off immediately. Averaging 12 members per semester, the choir, which was offered as a regular course for university credit, always had a long waiting list of students seeking to enroll. Although preference was given to those with some musical background, Freeman said, being a music major was not a prerequisite.

In addition to its local appearances, she said, the choir performed regularly with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Master Chorale at the Los Angeles Music Center, and achieved some national recognition after appearing at national conferences of music educators and hand-bell ringers.

Then came trouble. In a perfunctory message left on her answering machine last August, Freeman said, she was informed that her teaching contract would not be renewed for fall. Thrown into a quandary, she telephoned several longtime choir members. The consensus, she says, was resounding: They wanted to continue with or without the university.

In a series of grievances against the university, as well as separate claims filed with the California Department of Employment and Housing and the State Board of Control, Freeman blamed her loss of employment on sexual discrimination.

Specifically, she said, a permanent teaching position she had applied for had already been promised to a less qualified male lecturer.

The university's action against her, she said, also constituted retaliation for her having formed a women's support group in the music department that, she says, later developed into a campuswide grass-roots organization to fight sexual harassment.

"Administrators and the management in the music department permitted an environment to occur . . . which was sexist, discriminatory . . . and deprived females . . . of equal protection of the law in a safe work environment," Freeman charged in her claim to the State Board of Control, the body charged with reviewing claims against the state.

Although that claim has been rejected, said Allen Thomas, an attorney representing Freeman, some of the other actions are pending. Eventually, he said, he plans to file a lawsuit against the university on Freeman's behalf demanding that she be reinstated.

University officials declined to discuss the case, citing the pending litigation.

Decision Defended

But university President Curtis L. McCray denied that an atmosphere of overt sexual discrimination exists in the music department or anywhere else on campus. "I haven't seen any evidence of it," he said.

He called the loss of the campus hand-bell choir a "shame," but defended the decision to end university support for the program, citing budgetary constraints. "My understanding is that there weren't that many students in the program," he said. "It's a shame to have to cut out something that people like, but we have to make choices based on priorities."

Ensemble members, meanwhile, say they are finding life off-campus to be a mixed blessing. Although some decry the loss of college credit for their efforts, others say that disassociating from the university has actually improved the quality of their music.

"At first it was sad," Laura Langdon, a 22-year-old music therapy major, said of the separation from the university. "It seemed like kind of a downfall for us." Eventually, though, she changed her view. "To me, moving off-campus proved that we could do it no matter what," she said. "It brought us closer."

Said John Atkinson, 25: "It's more relaxed now. We have a little more fun."

University Bells Unused

Meeting weekly at New Life Community Church in Artesia, the group practices on Freeman's own set of hand bells, while about $18,000 worth of bells and equipment lay unused at the university. Because she is no longer paid for her time, Freeman said, overhead is low, although the group expects to profit modestly from future concerts.

By broadening ensemble membership to include non-students, Freeman said, she has been able to attract some talented musicians who otherwise could not participate, thus improving overall quality. Of the group's 14 current members, she said, nine are CSULB students.

Until December, Freeman said, the hand-bell ensemble was able to honor most of the concert commitments it had made while still on campus. As for the future, she said, it is in flux.

"We're getting lots of invitations to perform," she said, "but most are from outside Long Beach."

To many of the bell ringers, however, it no longer seems to matter.

"This group is unique," said Tracy Halter, 23, who has been a choir member four years. "I'd follow them anywhere."

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