Handbell choirs finding the right note with the public

Handbell ringing in the US has become more popular over the past 50 years.  A Handbell Musicians of America predecessor had fewer than 50 members in 1955; in 2012 HMA has roughly 7,000 registered members.  In Chestnut Hill, St. Martin-in-the-Fields church has been inspiring parishioners since the early 90’s.“The hand bell choir is like all choirs.  They want to be heard and they want to be loved,” says St. Martin in the   Field’s music director, Erik Meyer.  He’s only been music director since August of last year, but St. Martin’s church in Chestnut Hill’s handbell choir has been chiming long before that. “A lot of people are drawn to playing them because it’s less frightening than singing.  I’ve never heard anyone say, oh the handbells drive me crazy.”The handbells were invented so that church tower bell ringers could practice without annoying the neighbors. In the later half of the 20th century, people starting composing music for hand bells, and in the 1980’s and 90’s churches began featuring handbell choirs for Sunday worship services.An ideal handbell choir has 11 members, but St. Martin’s manages with ten, including Meyer. With three octaves of bells to play, often someone has to pick up the slack and play three notes with two hands. He describes the physical nature of playing a handbell as tapping with a hammer. The sound produced is light, delicate and not very loud. Each player is typically assigned two notes and the songs are performed like a piano but with bells instead of strings.Playing in a handbell choir is like playing a team sport. The challenge is to ring individual notes at the right time but not lose sight of the bigger picture. St. Martin’s handbell choir practices on this because Meyer said it’s easy to lose that focus.The handbell choir musicians meet in a downstairs room at St. Martin’s every Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. where a padded table covered with a black cloth supports the bells, which are heavy and made of brass. The choir is in deep concentration during practice, lips count silently and brows are scrunched as players lean in to read the music. They wear white gloves to protect the brass from oil on their hands, and the group agrees that it also adds a nice visual element. They practice two or three hymns and perform for Sunday worship twice a month, at two separate services.Betty Cecil was playing in a smaller group at her residence community for about a year before they discontinued. When she saw that St. Martin’s was looking for players, she hoped they were willing to take her on despite lack of experience. “I like the rhythm, the sound, the harmony, the music all together,” said Cecil. She attends services regularly and sometimes, listening to music helps her feel closer to God but when she performs, her mind is only on playing.Dick Haggard, who’s been a part of the group for about as long as it’s been in existence, said, “I do more connecting when I hear them, more than when playing.” He often asks parishioners, “how were the bells today?” He’s delighted to receive their praise and delighted by the thought that his playing could help the congregation feel closer to God.Music Director Meyer has heard from members of the church about one particularly hot summer day at St. Martin’s last year when the sound of the bells seemed to cool parishioners off. As director, he believes in music’s power, “There’s a logical structure and hierarchy and language put a limit on expression, and music fills that gap, it’s not just noises, it organizes and helps us to express something we may not be able to say in words,” said Meyer.wt

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