Handbell music composer Susan Nelson is a rock star in Estonia.
In this country near the Baltic Sea, hundreds of people come out for handbell choirs. But they also get together in substantial crowds for all kinds of other music, as well as performing and literary arts, even poetry readings.
That’s the power of the arts in Estonia, and Nelson got swept up in that love when she befriended the Campanelli Handbell Ensemble and its leader, Inna Lai, who embraced Nelson and her work.
“Estonian commitment to and love for music is amazing, in fact they like to say they sang themselves free from Soviet occupation,” Nelson says, adding, “Music is mandatory in education, there are statues of poets, writers, musicians, visual artists everywhere, it’s a very creative and artistic country.”
Nelson, who grew up in Ewing, was invited to Estonia in October, 2013, by Lai, to attend an “author’s concert,” consisting entirely of her works. The composer knew her music was being performed in the Baltic country but was quite surprised when Lai reached out via e-mail and described the all-Nelson program, which would be titled “Sue’s Blues.”
The ongoing friendship with Lai led to more international collaborations, and handbells and hands reached back across the sea, when the Campanelli group and Lai came to central New Jersey in 2017, for “Sue’s Blues Too.”
“Campanelli’s U.S. tour was a great success,” says Nelson. “This grass roots, independent venture was managed by the Estonian Outreach Committee of Hamilton, consisting of four members: Bill Simon, Nancy Scanlan, my sister Cecilia Gilligo, and me.”
The Campanelli choir performed at the New York Estonia House in New York City, Our Lady of Sorrows Church, in Hamilton Township, St. Paul Lutheran Church in Beachwood, and the Washington Crossing Visitor Center in Pennsylvania.
She notes that “Sue’s Blues Too” was different in that half of the program was devoted to Estonian music and composers, in addition to her work. “Why bring 17 musicians all the way from Estonia without introducing audiences to their wonderfully creative music?” Nelson says.
“Miraculously we didn’t lose our shirts, and every cent of funds raised and proceeds from the concerts went to Campanelli to cover their expenses,” she says.
The volunteer group handled everything — fundraising, hotels, homestay lodging, bus transportation, car rentals, booking venues and getting backers, programs, advertising, press releases, bulk mailings, securing equipment, bells, performers, and other details. Nelson’s son Jonathan assisted with driving and errands.
“We even fit in a weekend trip to Niagara Falls,” Nelson says. “It was a wild ride, but we’ve all said we would do it again in a minute.”
Two years later, in 2019, Nelson would return to Estonia for “Sue’s Blues 3.”
Her career in composing, conducting, and performing with handbell choirs began more than 30 years ago, when Nelson was director of music and organist at the now shuttered Advent Lutheran Church in Trenton. To mark its 100th anniversary, the church purchased a two-octave set of handbells.
They turned to Nelson for instruction, which she was pleased to do. “I said, ‘Sure, but send me to school.’ So I took Saturday seminars at Westminster (with Katsumi Kodama) and learned everything I needed to know about how to start a bell choir. This was a no-brainer: I saw the opportunity and took it.”
Nelson was especially drawn toward handbells because of their lovely tonalities and almost angelic ambiance.
“Handbell choirs and music for the choirs are a whole universe in themselves,” she says. “Handbells just have this aura. They’re not only beautiful to listen to, they’re visually beautiful as well.”
Nelson recently retired after more than 20 years working in cataloging at Westminster Choir College’s Talbott Library. With the goal of pursuing composition full time, she also left her position as organist and director of music at St. Mark Church in Bristol, Pennsylvania, one of a string of directorships she has had throughout four decades.
Nelson has played piano, organ, harpsichord, handbells, recorder, guitar, flute, and the Renaissance double-reed instrument the crumhorn for more than 40 years.
Growing up in Ewing among a musical family, she was originally a pianist. Her dad and mom — a maintenance worker and legal secretary — insisted on private lessons.
“My parents grew up during the Depression, and their parents couldn’t afford to give them music lessons,” Nelson says. “So they made sure to give each of their children a musical education.”
Nelson earned her BA in music theory and composition from Rutgers University in 1979. She went back to school while in her 50s and in 2014 graduated summa cum laude with a master’s of music degree from the University of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
The “Sue’s Blues” concert served as her graduate composition recital for the university, supported by a 200-page thesis, “A Ringing Evolution: An International Graduate Composition Recital.”
Naming Johann Sebastian Bach as her strongest influence (“I’ve loved him since I was about 10,” she says) Nelson focused on composition, which tickled her love of solving problems and putting things together.
“Composition is like a puzzle, and I love puzzles and crosswords,” she says. “I love to figure how things ‘tick,’ how to make things work, and that ties in with crosswords and whatnot.”
Nelson’s first original work was published in 1991, a piece she had written for a friend who had died. Titled “Appalachian Air,” it was dedicated to the memory of Timothy Gorman, who was director of music at the First United Methodist Church of Bristol, PA.
The budding composer had such affectionate feelings for the work, she almost didn’t submit it.
“I’m shy about sending stuff out, but I saw an ad calling for submissions, so I did it,” Nelson says. “I wrote it up as neatly as possible, gathered up my courage, and popped it in the mail, and I just about fell over when I got the contract. That first time was very, very hard, though. I felt like I was putting one of my children in the mail.”
Currently, her compositions are in print with 22 major publishers. Nelson’s works have been performed, recorded, and broadcast on six continents, and featured in festivals around the world, including in Scotland, Hong Kong, and of course Estonia, where her biggest “fan base” exists.
Nelson’s arrangement of the “Brian Boru March” was used for an Estonian TV commercial, her “Trumpet Voluntary” was the processional for the opening ceremonies of Estonia’s Independence Day celebration in 2017, and she continues to be the Campanelli ensemble’s personal composer.
She is also an innovative teacher, and as a clinician has taught composition, orchestration, music theory, and various handbell technique classes for more than 30 years. Nelson is the author of the innovative “KidzRing” series of books for children studying handbells.
She likes to say she’s pushing the envelope in her compositions, always looking for creative ways to enhance handbell literature, arranging for unusual instrumental collaborations, and writing in a wide variety of styles.
Unfortunately, concerts and tours came to a halt early last year, as the COVID-19 pandemic put life on hold, not just the performing arts.
Nelson hasn’t slacked, though, and has kept working and collaborating as best as possible.
“I had just finished a commission in February, 2020, when COVID exploded, and since no one is practicing — handbell or vocal choirs — I still haven’t heard the piece,” she says. “It was interesting because the woman who commissioned me plays Native American flute, so it was a fascinating piece to write.”
Nelson has also been figuring out ways her compositions and arrangements can be enjoyed and played while socially distancing.
For large-scale handbell works, playing together is not feasible, so most compositions of this kind are not selling right now. Nelson says what groups need and what is really working for social distancing are pieces for just a few “ringers” with proper separation, or music that can be shared virtually.
An excellent example is her arrangement of the traditional round, “Dona Nobis Pacem” (Give us Peace).
“It’s an easy arrangement of ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ with a lot of options,” she says. “It’s playable as a handbell solo or for more ringers, or for a ‘C’ instrument, etc., plus an MP3 of the guitar accompaniment is included so they don’t even need an accompanist.”
“I’ve published this (and other works) out of my own company,” she adds. “People can just download a PDF, there are no shipping fees, and it’s not expensive at all. This way, people can have new work while there’s no money coming in.”
“I’ve been re-vamping my website so I’ll be able to get more (works) out there, but also, with things at a standstill, I’ve been giving (compositions) away,” Nelson says. “Think of Estonia: It’s so expensive for another country to get a piece of music. I continue to produce music, but if I’d like to hear if something works, I’ll give it away.”
This way the ensemble can rehearse, perform, and record Nelson’s music, stream it or create a CD, which the group can share with or send to her.
“You always get something back when you give a piece of music away,” she says.