Local Handbell Choirs Bring Magic to the Music
Story and photography by Lisa Gregory
Amy Smith just couldn’t put the bells down.
At age 13, Smith began playing in Redeemer’s United Church of Christ’s handbell choir in Littlestown. There, under the tutelage of the director at the time, she describes the experience as “magical.”
Besides religious music, they performed Gershwin tunes and even “The Phantom of the Opera,” she remembers.
But, when the director passed away, there was no one to lead the handbell choir. Smith participated in the handbell choirs of other local churches because she missed it so.
But it wasn’t quite the same.
So Smith returned to Redeemer’s and took up the mantle of leading the handbell choir herself. “The bells were just sitting there and getting more patinaed, and it tugged at my heart,” she says.
Smith, who now has been leading the handbell choir at Redeemer’s for 13 years, is not alone in her passion for the bells. Whether it’s playing them or listening to them, the experience is transcendent for many. “The bells speak to us,” says Smith.
With the holidays fast approaching, one could not be blamed for having bells on the mind. Christmas and bells go hand in hand, after all. “There is nothing more beautiful than ‘Angels We Have Heard on High’ on the bells,” says Scott Fredericks, minister of music at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Hanover.
Yet handbells are so much more than the sound of a season. And they have a rich history of their own.
It was, in fact, P.T. Barnum who popularized the bells in the mid-1800s as part of his circus act. And now they have undergone a resurgence of sorts, with community, college, and other secular groups becoming more common in addition to church handbell choirs.
A handbell choir played at the first presidential inauguration of George W. Bush. And a visit to YouTube shows handbell choirs performing such standards as “Bohemian Rhapsody” by the rock band Queen and even one performing at The Great Wall of China.
And, to top it off, Pennsylvania can lay claim to the fact that its own Bucks County is the home of the war between handbell manufacturers Malmark and Schulmerich. The competition between the two became so fierce that one lawsuit nearly made it to the Supreme Court.
So it is not surprising then that youth and adult bell choirs can be found at many local churches, bringing a beautiful addition to the worship experience, whether it’s for Christmas or Easter or just regular services.
“It is prayer without words,” says Don Horneff, director of music at Emmanuel Church of Christ in Hanover, of the sound of the bells.
It’s an effort well suited to those who are well coordinated; while the idea of ringing a bell sounds simple enough,
“I enjoy the mental gymnastics,” says Ayleen Gontz, a member of the handbell choir at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Littlestown.
Each bell represents a note. And in a typical choir of 11 ringers, each ringer is assigned two bells, although some play more, including two in each hand. Ringers must keep track of the correct bell and the correct note as well as switching from one bell to another.
“You really have to keep the tempo, and you really have to listen to each other,” says Smith. “It is very much like a singing choir. You have to listen to each other so that you’re not ringing too hard, or that your bell is too soft.”
How one rings the bell matters too, from the flick of the wrist to a wide arc of the arm. The bell can also be struck by a mallet or touched with a finger to create a vibrato sound.
The bells range from very tiny to very large and hefty. The smaller bells have a higher sound, the larger ones deeper.
“There’s so many different techniques, from joyful and percussive sounding, to very melodious and legato and smooth, to the high tinkly bells to the big, low bells,” says Fredericks.
And, in fact, the large bells can weigh more than 15 pounds and sometimes require the user to wear special wrist guards. “You got to have the muscles to do it,” says Ben Messinger, who leads the bell choir at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church.
But, oh, the sound they can make when all the bells come together.
“We each play a note, but we all come together to make music,” explains Ardis Kunde, a member of the handbell choir at St. Matthew.
That coming together and the community it creates among its participants is an important aspect of the handbell choir experience. “Everybody relies on everybody,” says Horneff. “So it’s a camaraderie.”
Kunde and her husband Roland understand this all too well. They have been participating in handbell choirs for decades. “I would miss it if I didn’t have it,” Ardis Kunde says of the experience.
Like so many other things, COVID-19 has impacted local handbell choirs. The performance season itself is from September to June, but practicing and performing were challenging and even nonexistent during the shutdown.
However, there is a silver lining. When handbell practices and performances were allowed once again, the ability to abide by social distancing and other precautions was fairly easy.
“COVID didn’t stop the bells from ringing,” says Messinger. “We stood far apart, wore masks and played music.”
And the bells continue to ring. At a recent practice in the church sanctuary at St. Paul’s, the handbell choir members eagerly gravitated toward the bells and chimes on a table before them.
With smiles all around, they took their bells in hand and waited for the cue from Messinger. Practice was under way.
Let the magic begin.
Handbbell Choirs in the community
Emmanuel United Church of Christ
Redeemer’s United Church of Christ
St. Matthew Lutheran Church
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church