My new life as a handbell ringer

tamrawilson Uncategorized


Part of the joy of being retired is volunteering for stuff you wouldn’t have had the guts to try before.

Take the church handbell ensemble, for instance. Last August I turned up for the season opener at First Presbyterian Church in Newton. I should have been nervous, joining a group that’s been in progress for years. Being the new ringer on the block isn’t particularly easy.

But I did read music, though I’d never played handbells in my life. Music Director Cathy Murdock and other ringers were welcoming and supportive, and within a month or so, I was playing along with the rest of the ensemble, sort of.

Playing along is the watchword. The first rule is to not be afraid to ask stupid questions. I’ve asked plenty. And I’ve done a lot of pretending to know what I’m doing, which gets me only so far.

Group music takes teamwork. I learned that during the late ‘60s when being in the band, was, well—not the coolest option, but in my Midwestern part of the world, it was the only musical game in town outside piano lessons and choir. Fifty years later, I can still feel the cadence of drums echoing across the football field, remember what it was like to put on an itchy band uniform and march in step. Those who consider sports teams the end-all for learning teamwork should take a second look at what it takes to perform in a marching band.

Back in those days, I learned how to be put on the spot and keep going. Our director, a genial perfectionist, kept his byword on the blackboard and never erased it: PRIDE.  I played oboe, a double-reed woodwind instrument used in the concert band, not the marching band. So on any given football Friday, I might find myself as a place marker (really easy), carrying a banner (easy), or playing the glockenspiel, a type of upright xylophone, with a wooden mallet (not easy).

When the percussion section came up short the day of the Homecoming parade, Mr. Band Director handed me the cymbals. “Here you go,” he said.

And so I went, with the bass drummer giving me a cue of when to crash the cymbals on the end beat as we marched down Main Street. It was like one of those nightmares you have about being back in high school and have to take a final exam for a class you forgot to attend all semester. I was determined to not let the crowd know that the cymbal player had never held a pair of cymbals until ten minutes ago, and I pulled it off pretty well.

The good thing about handbells is that I don’t have to worry about my footwork or whether I’m in the proper position to create a lozenge or rotating pinwheel at halftime. Just ringing, in time (check your count), in tune (check your bells) and make sure I’m on the correct page.

Anyone who thinks ringing is easy has another think coming. Like most everything in the world, handbells have their own techniques and language. “LV” or let vibrate, damp—don’t vibrate, regular ringing style, thumb damping, plucking, swinging, shaking, using a soft mallet, using chimes and Shelley ringing—ringing two bells at once with the same hand. I have no idea why it’s called “Shelley.” I’ve looked this up on the internet. Maybe the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was a ringer? I have no idea.

I do know that for the first time in my life, I’ve encountered 7/8 and 10/8 measures interspersed with 4/4, 6/8 and3/4 measures, which goes to show how quickly a handbell gig has sent me into deep water.

Then there’s the issue of shifting bell assignments. The First Presbyterian ringers aren’t assigned bells for life.  One song I may play an octave higher or lower, entirely different notes in the treble clef or—heaven forbid—step over to the bass clef. Bass has never been my forte, but there I was, playing some tenor bells in the bass clef during “What Wondrous Love Is This.” I kept leaning on my bass clef crutch: All Cars Eat Gas and Great Big Dogs Fight Animal, the codes learned for identifying bass clef notes as a five-year-old taking piano lessons.

Sunday, May 20, will be the final appearance of the First Presbyterian handbell ensemble of the season. Check your calendar and let it resonate.