It’s Bell Sunday. . .Hallelujah!

Watching a handbell choir play is a fascinating experience for adults and children alike, so you won’t want to miss worship services at Westminster on December 18th.   As with an orchestra, there is so much to see and hear:  beautiful, shiny bells of varying sizes are precisely coordinated by the ringers as they present special carol arrangements to enhance our worship experience.   The bells create a truly festive atmosphere as our calendar winds ever closer to Christmas celebrations.

The Fourth Sunday of Advent in Westminster’s calendar has, for many years now, been known as Bell Sunday.  This is the morning we are treated to special music by the handbell choir, the morning we light the Hallelujah candle on our Advent wreath.  And what a delightful Hallelujah sound our Westminster Handbell Choir, under the direction of Kathryn Bunch, will surely make!   These faithful ringers have been rehearsing diligently for quite some time; as with all music in worship, for those who give of their time and talents to glorify God, this is a true labor of love.  We want them all to know how much we appreciate their gift.

A little background about handbells might interest you.  A handbell (as you can surely guess!) is a bell designed to be rung by hand.  To do so, a ringer grasps the bell by its slightly flexible handle and moves the wrist to make the hinged clapper inside the bell strike.  An individual handbell can be used simply as a signal to catch people’s attention or summon them together, but handbells are generally heard in tuned sets, traditionally known as handbell choirs.  Many people across the world are devoted to handbell music and love playing in bell choirs.

The first tuned handbells were developed in Wiltshire, England between 1696 and 1724.   Originally, such bells were used by change ringers to rehearse outside their bell towers.   Tower bell ringers’ enthusiasm for practicing the complicated art of change ringing could easily exceed the neighbors’ listening patience, so in the days before modern sound control, handbells offered them a way to continue ringing without the aural assault.  The handbell sets used by change ringers had the same number of bells as in the towers–generally 6 or 12 tuned to a diatonic scale.

Handbells were first brought to the United States by Margaret Shurcliff in 1902.   The bells used in American handbell choirs are almost always English handbells (this refers to a specific type of bell, not to the country of origin).  While some American handbell choirs do use bells made in England–by Whitechapel, for example–the majority play bells either by Malmark or Schulmerich, both based in Pennsylvania. Westminster’s 3-octave set is made by Malmark.

Unlike an orchestra or choir, in which each musician is responsible for one line of the texture (though in choirs and, to some extent in orchestras as well, musicians do operate in groups), a bell ensemble acts as one instrument, with each musician responsible for particular notes, sounding his or her assigned bells whenever that note appears in the music.   This is team-playing at a high level.  And, as you can imagine, this makes each ringer’s presence highly significant: one simply cannot have a bell choir without the requisite number of ringers, since this would mean holes in the texture, actual missing notes!   Perhaps now you can appreciate why bell choir directors always struggle to make sure they have enough ringers present at rehearsals & performances.

If you are inspired by this morning’s music and would like to give the handbell choir a try, Kathryn Bunch and the ringers would be more than happy to hear from you!