The following article is based on Alison Wood’s speech at the RL 2011, where Fred Merrett was honoured by ALGEHR for his contributions to the Handbell World.
There are very few ringers in Western Canada who have not been influenced in some way by Fred Merrett. Many North Americans talk of Fred as the first person who ever put a handbell in their hands. If you are not one of those, there is a good chance that Fred taught your handbell teacher or their teachers at schools in Manitoba or Edmonton, at the International Music Camp between Manitoba and North Dakota, or in countless workshops all over Canada and North America.
Ringers all over the world know Fred Merrett’s handbell music, which includes everything from arrangements of well known and loved pieces, to original compositions that showcase the unique characteristics of handbells, to “How To” manuals written for all ages and ability levels. In choosing to rename the Alberta Guild Composition Contest in honour of Fred Merrett, the guild hopes to forever link his name to that of the Alberta Guild, and to ensure that future generations will remember the influence he has had on us all.
Fred Merrett first heard handbells in 1963 when the Vancouver Citadel Salvation Army Band came through Winnipeg with their handbell choir. Even now when he talks of it, the room becomes charged with his excitement, and one can actually see the transformation that took place in that moment. Fred was alight with the possibilities, and was able to convince his high school to buy a set of bells in 1966. He started the first school handbell choir in Canada.
When Fred moved to Edmonton in 1973, he again was a huge force behind the idea of placing handbells in the schools. At that time the Edmonton Public School Board bought fifteen sets of handbells with the requirement that the teachers who borrowed handbells take a three-day course of instruction from Fred. On a personal note, I attended his course in 1976 with nine years of previous experience at Robertson-Wesley, but it was that requirement, and therefore Fred Merrett, that taught me to ring handbells correctly and musically.
Fred Merrett’s accomplishments in the handbell world are too numerous to list here. However, several highlights need to be mentioned, including:
- thirty-eight years teaching handbells in the schools and educating teachers
- twenty-five years from 1980 to 2005 in which he instigated and became Coordinator of the week of Handbells at the International Music camp
- conducting the 4.5 octave Bronze Harmony Handbell Choir for the twenty-one years directly after his retirement from the school board
- adjudicating many handbell festivals and giving countless workshops
- receiving Lifetime Memberships in three of the Canadian Handbell Guilds - Alberta, Manitoba, and British Columbia;
- being the Massed Ringing Conductor at the International Handbell Festival in Vancouver during Expo 86, and two of the International Symposia - Korea in 1990 and Edmonton in 1992
- serving as President of the Alberta Guild of English Handbell Ringers from 1988 to 1990.
Fred Merrett has brought great recognition to ALGEHR in the world of handbell ringers. As well as all the previously mentioned accomplishments, he served the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers as a member of the Committee for Handbells in Formal Education. Thanks to Fred’s experiences and knowledge, when the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers gave its first awards for Exemplary School Programs in 1970, of the fifteen North American schools named, two of the six elementary school programs were from Alberta in Edmonton and Lethbridge. At the last Edmonton Classic Bronze a year ago, well-known composer and clinician, Kevin McChesney, spoke at length during one dinner about going to his first AGEHR National Convention and getting to meet “the handbell icons he had admired growing up.” The first one he mentioned? Fred Merrett.
Fred Merrett has received many honours in his time, including composition awards from all over the United States and Canada, as well as his three Lifetime Memberships. They do not show up on the list of handbell accomplishments that appear on his own, modest, Handbell Curriculum Vitae. What Fred views to be his most rewarding and exciting accomplishment is to have had a part in the establishment of each of the five guilds in Canada.
Of course, what stands out to all ringers in North America is the number of handbell compositions and arrangements penned by Fred Merrett. Publishers actively seek his contributions to their handbell catalogues, and several pieces are presently in the process. Fred has written manuals and pieces for elementary music groups, senior citizen’s homes, choirs of every level of ability, soloists, ensembles, and six-in-hand duets. These last contributions have given Fred and Amy, his beloved wife of many years, the opportunity to share more music making on the handbells to which he has devoted so much of his life.
The desire to recognize Fred’s incredible contribution to music, handbells, Canadian ringers and the Alberta Guild, the ALGEHR Board and a number of members-at-large spent several months discussing the importance of finding a way to associate the name of Fred Merrett with our guild, so that future generations of ringers would always know of the mark he made on the ringing world. In honour of his lifetime commitment to handbells and all his work promoting ringing in Alberta, the Alberta Guild of English Handbells announced at the Ringing Link, that the name of their composition contest had been changed, and would from that day forward be known as “The Fred Merrett Award for New Compositions.”
President Fiona Miller presented a certificate to Fred, who was present in the audience to hear his “Strawberry Roan” played en masse. Since that night, we have heard from those who know Fred well, that this was a perfect kind of tribute for Fred, and that nothing would have meant more to him.
Fred Merrett has had an incredible influence on countless students who continue to make music; on ringers in Edmonton, Winnipeg; on the various provincial guilds, and on the international ringing world, and his music is known and enjoyed worldwide by audiences and ringers alike. He is, as Kevin McChesney said, a handbell icon, and was also recognized by the Handbell Guilds of Canada for his lifetime achievement. The Alberta Guild has been extremely fortunate to have had such gifted handbell pioneers in our midst, and is especially lucky for the influence of Mr. Fred Merrett over the past few decades.