I've played in an adult handbell group for over 20 years now and find it challenging and rewarding. The group asked me to write an article about the bells and their players for the church newsletter. In an original Biscuit Scoop, I'm running the "Director's Cut" version with some passages restored that were cut from the version that will appear in the newsletter. I hope this piece gives you some more insight into what is involved in ringing handbells and what it means to be part of a talented, musical and caring group of people.
Ringing, Singing on Their Way
I enjoy ringing....since I don't play a "solo" instrument, ringing allows me to make beautiful music with other beautiful souls.
When the adult Evensong Handbells play for church or in the community, listeners think they’re witnessing what amounts to a giant well-oiled music machine involving 61 bells, 37 chimes and 13 people playing flawlessly.
Music has always been a part of me and in my lifetime, I have learned to play the piano, oboe and handbells after seeing others perform. In my mind's eye, I can still see the enjoyment on the players’ faces as they performed. And the showmanship that went with each performance captivated my heart!
The reality is a bit different. For one thing, few performances are flawless. In the cascade of hundreds of notes rolling out of the mouths of the precisely manufactured bronze Malmark bells someone along the line is going to miss one. And they’re fortunate if that’s all they do. Worse is getting lost in the music for what seems like several minutes which are in reality mere seconds. The player can stand there or play a bell at random, hoping it will fit. Or he or she might not play at all, standing there frozen, looking for something familiar in the music. Or they can whisper, “Measure” to their stand partner and hope the partner isn’t as lost as they are.
The mistakes pass so quickly that, in general the audience or congregation is unaware of any mistakes. Other players don’t necessarily catch them either—they’re busy with their own parts.
I love ringing with Evensong because each of us encourages the others, knowing that at any moment we could be the visiting bell!! Also, Becky pushes us out of our comfort zones, knowing that we can ring more difficult music with each year.
So, why this obsession with perfection among bell players?
For one thing, it’s a challenge. It takes a while to learn the basic technique for ringing a bell. Once that is mastered, there’s the matter of more advanced methods, of switching bells, of turning pages while the notes march on, perhaps playing with two bells in each hand. It’s difficult and it’s complicated.
Musically I enjoy the challenge, but the thing I like most is that we have become a family and I just like being with these guys!
They are very fine people who willingly meet every Sunday afternoon to make music to the glory of God.
Evensong Handbells play for church maybe five to six times a year and with other special programs such as a Candlelight Concert at Historic Bruton Parish Church and at local nursing homes and end of the year programs that add on maybe four more performances. So why only ten performances?
In a word, that’s because the music they play is hard. Level 3-4 bells pieces (American Guild of English Handbell Ringers—AGEHR—ratings of the music) are hard to play, period. It takes a lot of practice, even for the experienced players of Evensong. They might rehearse a three minute piece for five hours total. And the number of years spent playing bells among the players ranges from three to thirty-three, with an average time of over 21 and a total of 321 years for the 15 players and their director.
I play to hear the wonderful music of course. And, for all the laughs and good times.
The bell players are motivated to play well because it sounds better. There is perhaps nothing as powerful and inspiring and exciting and beautiful as a difficult bell piece played correctly. And there is perhaps nothing that sounds worse than an Eb bell intruding into a song in D or one bell clanging against another.
Then there are the disasters. Pages don’t get turned in time; music is thrown on the floor when it’s turned; bells are dropped, tables collapse. These things don’t happen often, but they do happen, most often, thankfully, in rehearsal.
I love the bells because of their sound and the motions we go through to produce those sounds. The literature is challenging yet attainable and it embraces my heart and soul. That is why I play bells.
Let’s talk about rehearsal. Evensong practices about an hour and fifteen minutes weekly with the last fifteen minutes talking about joys and concerns and praying for each other. During that time they will run over four to five songs. Director Becky Verner repeats sections, makes suggestions, uses humor to make her point. Sometimes the group will stumble through a new piece…or fluff one they’ve been working on for a while. At the end of the song, there’s a defeated air in the room. The players know they didn’t do well, and Becky says it for them: “Well, that was underwhelming.”
The players laugh, scowl at their music, adjust their gloves, shake the tightness out of their hands, arms and shoulders. And then at a Ready! One! Two! Three! Ring! from Becky they’re off again, trying to get it right this time, trying to play it perfectly, played as one great organism, thirteen people feeling the music together, reaching toward heaven, offering the best of themselves and their abilities in praise to God.
Bell rehearsals allow us to share our faith, our love of music through handbells and our friendship. It’s a great combination!
And that is Evensong Bells.