Bells in Hand

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We recently started attending a different church.

We chose it because it looks like a church. Two churches we’ve attended in the past built new sanctuaries that reminded me of a big-box discount store: plain and windowless. I have a lot to say about this trend in church design, but for now, I’ll just say it doesn’t suit my aesthetics.

To my delight, our new church not only has stained glass windows, but also a handbell choir. Having played bells two decades ago, I was eager to join.

Handbell choirs seem to exist mainly in churches and schools. Whenever I hear handbells, I immediately think of Christmas, since bells are so appropriate to the season.

You may have noticed the bells being played in different ways for different effects: shaking; ringing, the bell being moved in a circular motion so the sound is living rather than static as it continues to vibrate; the bell being dampened against the chest at the end of its note’s duration; being struck by a mallet; being struck against the padded table.

This medley of carols has a Caribbean vibe and makes me think of steel drums:

Could any discussion of handbells be complete without The Carol of the Bells?

From carols, we make the logical segue to hymns and contemporary worship songs.

It’s common for a ringer in a handbell choir to be responsible for four or more bells. (At this point, I’m only playing one or two as I transition back into the artform.) Rare is the musician who can play an entire piece solo.

Handbells are not limited to carols and sacred music. Folk songs and classical music have been arranged for bell choirs.

Westminster Choir College Concert Handbell Choir playing Bach’s “Little” Fugue in g minor:

Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance:

Popular music has also been transcribed for handbells. Look how these players rotate their bells in this medley from The Lion King:

Adele’s Rolling in the Deep:

I’ve always been a choir person. I never played in a band or orchestra. Handbell choir is the only instrumental ensemble I’ve ever been part of. It requires absolute concentration. You must play the correct note at exactly the right moment. Your errors and omissions are incredibly obvious. You can’t be absent for a rehearsal or a performance, or you really need to find a substitute. Otherwise, the rest of the choir has to scramble to cover for you, adding an addition bell to their own responsibilities. Nevertheless, it is a lot of fun and greatly satisfying.

Any handbell ringers out there? Tell us about your experience in the comments.

2 responses »

    • It is such fun. This is a big week for the ringers at my church–we played for Palm Sunday, we’re playing for Maundy Thursday and will be playing Easter morning, too. Phew!

      Like

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