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Ringing in Joy: The Hand Bell Choir at St. David's

St. David’s has been blessed for over thirty years with beautiful handbells, organized and directed by Eileen Nahser. The handbells had to take a hiatus during Covid, but have been re-organized by Sue Mitchell-Wallace. Several of our former bell ringers have moved away, so we need to add some new faces to our group. Our bell choir rehearses 9:00-10:00 a.m. on Sunday mornings, in the handbell room (the end of the back hall) on the administrative level of Harrison Hall. If you have played handbells, you will know the joy and fun of making music together. If you are new to handbells, you will enjoy learning and making music with our wonderful ringers. Please contact Sue Mitchell-Wallace HERE to join this joyful group.

If you have never heard of handbells, this is a little history. The first handbells were simple gourds or shells which were struck with a stick of wood. Eventually, they were crafted from clay, wood, and stone. Small metal bells can be traced back to 3000 BC, and larger bells were present in China before the birth of Christ. Bells sewn to the garments of priests are evidenced in readings from the Old Testament ( recounted in the Book of Exodus).

Bells have been part of the Christian liturgy for over 1500 years. Paulinus, Bishop of Nola in Campania, Italy, conceived in 400 AD that a large brass kettle made a resounding din, heard for quite some distance. He hung it above the church and had it struck with a hammer to announce an assembly. By the mid-6th century, monks were casting bells weighing several tons each. These particular bells became so popular that, by the 7th century, bells rang throughout Italy. In the 8th century, the first set of tuned bells (called a peal, and evenly-tuned like the piano) was erected in Croryland Abbey, England. By the 10th century, there were bell towers throughout England. By the 12th century, bells were molded in bell foundries, although churches often cast their own bells in an earthen pit beside the church over which the bell would be hung.

Bells, always referred to as “she,” were believed to carry mystical powers and to imbue a town with honor. If a town was conquered, the conquerors would take the bells with them – indicating not only that the town was powerless but also that its liberty had been forfeited. In the Middle Ages, tower bells announced births and deaths, cited victories and defeats, awakened people in the morning, summoned firefighters, heralded the moment when shops should be opened or when it was time to go to market or put the bread in the oven, time to pray, and time to sleep.

It was soon observed that the higher the bells were suspended above the ground, the farther away they could be heard. Holland and Belgium, for instance, became famous for the height of their “singing towers” which contained between 23 and 70 tuned bells, called carillons. These sets were played by a single carilloneur, who sat in front of a keyboard of horizontal levers. When the carilloneur pushed down upon a lever with his fist or foot, wires caused the clapper to strike a bell. The Riverside Church in New York City has a 72-bell carillon, which weighs 200 tons, customized after this fashion.

The British devised their own mathematical system of ringing tower bells, called change ringing. Instead of one person playing all the bells from a keyboard, a rope hung from each bell and a single change ringer pulled one of the ropes to turn the bell and sound it – one bell, one rope, one person! St. James Episcopal Church in Marietta plays their tower bells in this fashion. The bells were rung in numerical order from highest to lowest. All bells had to be rung once before the order could restart. Each order is called a “change.” There exists no regularly notated music for change ringing. Rather, the music is graphed as a numerical sequence. Change ringing was noisy – it awakened the entire town, even if just for rehearsal – and the ringing hall (many feet below the suspended bells) was neither heated nor air-conditioned. In the 17th century, change ringers invented hand bells for practice. Bell rehearsals became “movable” to match the climate: pubs in winter; and outside in summer. In 1673, The Ancient Society of College Youths was organized for handbell ringers in Great Britain.

In 1923, Margaret Shurcliff of Boston founded The Beacon Hill Ringers, the first indigenous handbell choir in America. This led in 1937 to her founding the New England Guild of Handbell Ringers. The American Guild of English Handbell Ringers (AGEHR) was formed in 1954, with Ms. Shurcliff as President. In 2004, AGEHR celebrated 50 years of organization.

Being portable, bells have many uses in worship and in making music in many varied ways and places. They have appeared in commercials, Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, and the Tournament of Roses festivities. Contact Sue Mitchell-Wallace today to begin your handbell adventure!


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