HANDBELL CHOIRS HERALD THE HOLIDAY SEASON AND RING IN WORSHIP SERVICES IN NORTH MISSISSIPPI YEAR-ROUND.
WRITTEN BY Susan Baldani | PHOTOGRAPHED BY JOE WORTHEM
Perhaps you’ve heard them — from children’s school choirs to Carnegie Hall, the sweet, shimmering sound of handbells ringing in the holidays.
Handbells have a long history, going back as far as the 5th century B.C. in China, and can be found all over the world and in nearly every culture. In England, they started as an alternative to tower bell ringing, which became prevalent in the 16th century.
“The big cathedrals had bells in their towers which were rung by people pulling ropes connected to the bells to make them ring,” said Mary Poole, director of the handbell choir at Oxford University United Methodist Church. “They did not play tunes; just sequences of notes. They developed what is called ‘change ringing’: a pattern of bells rung in a certain sequence.”
Ringers had to practice, and residents living near church towers complained of the noise. In response, small bells were developed so that the ringers could practice indoors. Eventually larger sets of handbells were made. In the 1830s, English handbells were introduced to America, by the Peake Family Ringers, a musical troupe that performed all across the country, and in 1840 by P.T. Barnum, the famous American promoter and founder of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.
Reportedly, Barnum, on a tour in England, had a chance to hear the Lancashire Bell Ringers. He was so impressed by their talent that he believed they’d be a good fit in the U.S. He signed them to a contract and renamed them the Swiss Bell Ringers, though they were from England, not Switzerland.
Ringing melodies and simple harmonies, known as “tune ringing,” peaked in the middle of the 19th century. In the 20th century, interest declined, and only after the end of World War II did it begin to grow in popularity once again.
Today handbell choirs can be found in churches throughout the U.S., including right here in Mississippi. At many churches, handbells are not just used for one type of service. Each church can choose to ring them for a variety of reasons. The bells may be played on their own or accompanied by singers or other instruments. They also make an interesting addition to ministries.
“Bells bring a different dimension of sound to our services,” said Poole. “We use various techniques in ringing to add special effects to the music. Handbell playing is very rewarding to the ringers and, we hope, exciting to the congregation.”
With some individual bells selling for hundreds of dollars or more and sets costing upwards of $7,000, most ringers don’t own their own, so group practice is the only way to master a melody. It’s extremely important for every person in the choir to be in attendance at practices and performances.
“Handbells call for a very committed group of people,” Poole said. “When someone is absent, it’s like playing a piano with a key missing.”
Dave Cornelius, director of music and worship arts at First United Methodist Church in Corinth, agreed.
“Handbell playing is the ultimate team sport,” Cornelius said. “If somebody isn’t there for practice, you know it. Folks become pretty close knit because they are so dependent musically on each other.”
First United has had a handbell choir for more than 35 years, and today, its main choir has 13 regular players. Cornelius has also brought back a children’s handbell choir, which currently has 12 children from grades two through five. His goal is to have the handbell choir play at least once a month, especially during holiday services. The bells they use were donated to the church by the Droke and Hardin families in memory of loved ones.
Cornelius went on to say that chimes are sometimes also used by church choirs. Unlike handbells, with their crisp tones, chimes give off a more rounded warm tone. Of varying lengths, chimes are small tubular pipes with openings in the sides and a clapper inside. The clappers are made out of materials such as wood, bone, or metal.
Each handbell sounds a specific note, with overtones; the smaller bells have higher tones, and the larger the bell, the lower the tone. The handles are looped and rigid, and the clappers hinged with springs, for a clear sound after each strike. There are many bell-ringing techniques — ringers can change the tonal quality with a touch or a shake, or by striking the bells with dowels or mallets. Gloves protect both the bells and the ringers’ hands.
“The handbells are keyed exactly like a piano, and so they have sharps and flats just like a piano,” Cornelius said. “Many handbell choirs can tend to be mechanical since music is mathematical, and everyone is trying to play their note on their portion of the beat in the measure. But, the really cool thing is to try to get some kind of motion and flow of a smooth melodic line and that’s when your handbell choir really starts getting proficient. That’s when they start getting artistic.”
Cindy Mathis has been the handbell choir director at First Baptist Church in Corinth for 12 years now, and most of the group of 12 has stayed the same. Some have even been there since the bell choir was formed decades ago.
“In my experience in our church, we have some people who are musicians, who can read every note on the page,” Mathis said. “But, we also have people who have learned to play the rhythm and have certain bells that they prefer to play. You don’t have to have the knowledge of every note on the staff to be able to play.”
The bells at First Baptist were donated in 1982 by longtime member Ray Stennett, who loved the handbells and the sound they made during worship services.
Beverly McAlilly has been director of music ministries at First United Methodist Church in Tupelo since 1984.
“We also use our bells for call to worship,” McAlilly said. “On All Saints’ Mondays, as we light a candle for members of our congregation who have died, we also ring a bell. So, these bells are used in different ways in worship.”
First United’s handbell choir was established in the mid-1970s. The choir currently has 13 adult members, plus four others, so they can rotate. The church also has a multigenerational beginner handbell choir comprised of adults and older children, as well as an elementary choir with children from grades one through six.
“The bells have a different way of ministering to people,” McAlilly said. “It’s just another expression of people’s desire to glorify God through music.”
First Baptist and First United Methodist churches in Corinth will be joining together at the historic Coliseum Civic Center for the annual Christmas concert at 7 p.m. Dec. 3. In addition to handbell ringing, the show will include youth and adult singers and instrumentalists. The handbells will open the show and also accompany the audience with the singing of “Silent Night” at the end of the show.
“People really enjoy hearing the bells, especially at Christmas,” Mathis said.