I Heard the Bells…


And So Can You at Performances by These Local Handbell Choirs


How involved can it be to ring a bell?  A lot more than one would imagine.  And that’s easily discovered when researching handbell choirs.

First of all, it’s not just a bell.  Bells have a technology of their own, encompassing how they are cast, tuned, and sound, as well as the history, methods, and traditions all of which classify it as an art.  Campanology is what it’s called and obviously could involve years of study.  But in the abridged version, handbells were introduced in England around 1700, can weigh between 7 ounces and 18 pounds, and one set of bells is an octave. Typically church bell choirs utilize two to four sets, although a set can include eight octaves.  The “bell” portion, officially called a casting, is typically made of bronze, brass, or other similar metal alloys. There is a handrest between the handle and casting to prevent the hand from interfering with the sound of the bell. The hinged clapper moves in a single direction. The music is written specifically for bell choirs and it helps if you can read music should you want to become a bell ringer.  Bell choir musicians can wear gloves to protect the bell from the hand’s natural oils and contribute an aesthetic effect. The covered tables used by bell choirs have a 4-inch foam-padded top.  There are also mallets that can be used in one of the techniques of playing a handbell.

This leads us to the topic of techniques.  Basic playing technique is described as moving the bell away from the body and then returning it to the shoulder or table to silence the vibration unless the “tone should decay naturally.”  This movement of the bell can be accomplished in a variety of ways: vibrate, shake, thumb damp, pluck and swing to mention a few.  Sometimes, the bells are struck with mallets similar to playing a xylophone. Multiple bells can be played in each hand that, needless to say, takes a special technique and skill. Word has it that there are even more creative ways in the artistic quest to ring a bell.

Portsmouth, Ohio, is fortunate to have two bell choirs.  Holy Redeemer and Cornerstone United Methodist Church each have a bell choir.  Both choirs are multi-generational ranging from teens to seniors and the ringers vary in music experience and background.  Each choir welcomes new members and rehearses weekly although Holy Redeemer takes a break during the months of July and August. Their venues are primarily committed to performing in their church services and secondly in community events. One of their favorite venues is when the two choirs combine for special community performances.

Cornerstone, the larger of the two with 19 members, has a history originating in the 1980s, but in 2002, merged with three former United Methodist churches in Portsmouth.  This merger greatly enhanced the membership in the bell choir as well as the bell set collection.  Part of their repertoire has included travel in the Tri-State area to participate in handbell festivals.  Becky Climer, director of the Cornerstone bell choir, finds that “Playing bells is a great team builder.  We share laughs, music, and God’s love.  We are truly blessed to have each other.  Regardless of the length of time in the group, everyone feels the importance of their position.”  This year Cornerstone will be performing as a part of the event “Christmas at Cornerstone” Sunday, December 15 at 6 p.m.  The church is located at 808 Offnere Street.

Holy Redeemer’s history dates back to the late 1980s and was started with help from Notre Dame Elementary School and the support of Wesley Methodist Church.  Fr. Mark Ghiloni was instrumental in helping the parish obtain its own four-octave bell set enabling the bell choir to continue grow musically and spiritually throughout the years.  Director Jane Brown believes that there are many rewards in membership in the Holy Redeemer bell choir.  Experiencing the dedication and support of the membership as well as the joy of watching ringers with different musical abilities come together to make beautiful music are but two.  “Playing the bells is our way of giving back our creative gifts to Our Creator.”  Holy Redeemer is presenting a Christmas Concert at the Boneyfiddle Arts Center (546 2nd Street), Saturday, December 14, from 1 to 2 p.m.

One of the popular pieces performed by both bell choirs is the song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”   The lyrics are actually the poem, “Christmas Bells,” written in 1864 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  The last stanza states,

“Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

What could be a more appropriate bell choir favorite?

Contact information for anyone interested in bell choir membership or performances.

Cornerstone United Methodist Church
Becky Climer

Holy Redeemer Church
Jane Brown

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Harriet Carlson

Harriet Carlson, a retired Chicago teacher, lives in Sciotoville with her husband Ken and can dispel the fallacy that there is nothing to do in southern Ohio.

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