Hamilton resident Susan Nelson was shocked when an Estonian hand bell group held a concert of her music and a film crew made a documentary about it.
Inna Lai conducts as Susan Nelson (back in turquoise sweater) practices with Campanelli, an Estonian hand bell ensemble.

By Scott Morgan

Can social media take you to places you’d never otherwise go?

For Susan Nelson, a composer and professional church musician who lives in Hamilton, the answer is a dulcet, euphonious yes. Unlike so many for whom a Facebook account is merely a repository of cat photographs, Nelson’s led her to the former Soviet republic of Estonia to see a full concert of her music. And where someone wanted to make a film about her visit, from the tarmac to the concert hall.

To understand the magnitude of a thing like this, you must first understand just what it means for Estonians to think so highly of someone’s music that they would want to put on a show of one person’s compositions. There is, in fact, almost no chance of overstating how integral music is to the country. Estonia, after all, is the country that sang itself free.

No, that’s not a joke. When the Soviet Union dissolved a quarter-century ago, Estonians won their freedom by joining hands and singing. Music is taught at every level of education, and it’s mandatory.

Which brings us back to Facebook. Nelson checked her account one day in 2010 to find a message from a woman named Inna Lai, an Estonian composer and head of the hand bell ensemble Campanelli.

“I sent her a message in Facebook, that we’ve recorded one of her [compositions] with Campanelli,” Lai says. “After that, I had a chance to send her the CD. In gratitude, she gave us a pile of her music.”

The friendship between Nelson and Lai blossomed online, and the music flowed across the Atlantic (and the Baltic) until Lai decided that a full concert of Nelson’s hand bell music was in order. Nelson, of course, was floored. She admits she knew little about Estonia until she became friends with Lai. But by the time Campanelli had decided to dedicate an entire show to her, Nelson was that special combination of elated, impressed, and overwhelmed that only occurs when something of this scale comes along.

Originally, Nelson’s part in the show was going to be, perhaps fittingly, a social media-type affair. “I wanted her to get a part of it, and thought to get her to participate here via Skype,” Lai says. “But after sharing the idea to Susan, she decided to participate in person.”

The concert was to be held in the oldest concert hall in Tallinn, Estonia (itself the oldest intact medieval city in Europe), in January 2013. Nelson, who traveled with her sister, paid her own way to get there, but after that, she says, “we were really treated like royalty there.” Her money was no good anywhere, and she was treated like the cultural ambassador the Estonians saw her to be.

She was also treated like a movie star, which, for a time, she actually was. As the concert with the composer in audience came to fruition, an Estonian film producer named Anneli Ahven figured that the visit of an American composer based on a friendship that had started online was a perfect subject for the Estonian television series, “Meie Inimesed,” or “Our People.”

Ahven deferred discussions about the concert and film to Lai, who says that Ahven “was really inspired of the idea, where a personal concert is outgrown from a Facebook friendship.” The idea seemed so surreal, she says, that they just had to do it.

The 30-minute film follows Nelson’s arrival and visit to Estonia and her discovery of the country and its musical culture. It will be aired in Estonia on Dec. 8, when it also will be released on DVD, Lai says. The DVD should be available with English, Estonian, and Russian subtitles. Nelson plans to watch the airing with Lai and Ahven via Skype—which an Estonian invented, by the way.

“At first, we’re taking the DVD with us for a three-week tour in Russia,” Lai says. “But we really hope to get it available in U.S. as well. Also we hope to get a chance to repeat the concert back in [the U.S.]”

The Estonia concert was Nelson’s first trip to Europe. Her reaction to being in the country, and a visit to Helsinki, just across the Gulf of Finland, was “I wanted to move to Estonia.”

The concert was also the first time any ensemble had played a whole show of only her music. She has been a professional musician for 40 years, and her first compositions were published in 1991, when she took a shot at submitting a piece to a publisher and was stunned when they said yes. After a few more submissions and no rejections, she had the inkling that “maybe I’m actually good at this,” she laughs. “Maybe it’s not a fluke.”

Other ensembles had played pieces of Nelson’s over the years, and she still gets excited whenever she finds out some group from abroad is playing her work. She gets royalty checks for her work (not all of it hand bell), which she says makes for a nice secondary income, but not enough to retire on. Her work makes the rounds of the world’s ensemble music circuits, but Estonia was by far her biggest achievement as a composer.

And while she wasn’t intimidated by the idea of hearing her music in Tallinn, she was certainly aware of the gravity of the event.

“This is an educated audience,” Nelson said. “Music study is compulsory, so they knew what they were listening to.”

The 240 people in the concert hall with her were highly engaged and responsive, she said. She was nervous at first, but once Campanelli got going, “I knew my music was in good hands. I was more nervous for them. Me being the composer and being there could possibly make them nervous. I would be.”

But the concert went as smoothly as Estonian public transit, which happens to be free. You can watch footage of the concert on YouTube if you just search for “Susan Nelson Estonia.”

Nelson, who describes herself as camera shy and who is a mix of energetic and understated in person, says she’s not so much nervous to watch the documentary as excited. She doesn’t know what it’s going to be like, but after almost two years of waiting, she’s ready for her close-up.

And while she’s still getting used to being a bit of a TV star in Estonia, Nelson is rather comfortable in the world of music itself. She grew up in an exceedingly musical family. Her parents, who were teens in the 1930s and 40s, made music as often as they could.

“My father could sing, but my mother was highly gifted musically,” Nelson said. “She learned piano by ear during the Depression. If you sing it to my mother, she could play it.”

Her mother never learned to read a note of music, Nelson said. But she would play the most famous Chopin Nocturne after listening to it. And would never have understood the sheet music to it.

“She heard so many of my piano students play Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’ that she could play that one too,” Nelson said.

Nelson, however, used her own teen years to decide she wanted to be a church musician. She studied music formally and went on to get her bachelor’s in music theory and composition from Rutgers in 1979. Earlier this year she completed her master’s in music technology and composition from the University of Valley Forge. She has been a cataloging assistant at Westminster Choir College since 1996 and the director of music at St. Mark Lutheran Church in Hamilton since 1999. She has more than 200 compositions in print with 22 publishers.​

As for how she got into hand bell music, it started with a friend who did a medieval shepherds play and who asked her to play the bells. Immediately she was hooked by the possibilities. And, like any hand bell professional, she wants to get the word out that “hand bells are not just for Christmas anymore.”

The good thing is, the perception of bell music being just for the holidays is slowly fading. Hand bells, Nelson said, have made more and more appearances in mainstream and cinematic music over the past couple decades. Watch any movie scored by Danny Elfman, for example, and try to not notice the bells.

“It’s an old art. It goes back to the 1600s,” Nelson says. “But it’s a new art as well. “We’re still trying to break into the mainstream, but I think it’s happening, little by little.”