The Makings of a Non-Auditioned Community Handbell Choir

How did it happen?

A seed was planted and nurtured by so many people in the handbell community, and it grew into something unimagined when the journey began.

Some anecdotal history will tell the story.

A lady’s husband died and she approached the church music director about a fitting memorial. The church did not have a handbell choir and the music director had no training in handbells, but they agreed that a set of three octaves of handbells would do the trick. Subsequently, the congregation was invited to memorialize their loved ones, and before the first handbell had been rung, the church acquired five octaves of handbells.

Another lady’s athletic husband, realizing that he had lost an important connection with his musical wife when the kids moved out of the house, stood up in church and volunteered to join the choir when they said “…if you can count to 4 and you are still breathing…”, surprising his wife.

The music director quit in November, leaving 44 beginning ringers to flounder for themselves the rest of that first year. The video of that first Christmas concert has been in hiding, since it showed the choir setting down their bells in unison to turn the pages so that they could continue to play “Carol of the Bells”.

That next summer, five people signed up for a local handbell festival. The first class they attended was 4-in-Hand Ringing with Christine Andersen (what did 4-in-hand mean?). The first audition was for Kay Cook, where the athletic husband told Mrs. Cook that he could ring any position, as long as it was C4-D4. The first community handbell choir the group heard was Classical Bells from Livonia Michigan, followed quickly by Renaissance Ringers from Cuyahoga Falls Ohio. The athletic husband said to himself more than anyone else “Someday I want to be good enough to audition for a community choir!”

The five people were placed in a first year choir under the direction of Kevin McChesney. Kevin had the patience of Job as he taught the group how to ring musically. The first year choir was nervous enough at the final concert, then we all heard an audible gasp from the audience when Kevin announced that this first year choir was going to play “Now the Green Blade Riseth”.

Local festivals were followed by Area 5 festivals which led the church choir to its first national festival, the 50th Anniversary Festival in Norfolk Virginia.

But we are jumping ahead of our timeline. The original 5 festival people were joined by a sixth person and decided that handbells should be a ministry to senior citizens who couldn’t get out to hear Christmas music. So six people rehearsed at the church with three octaves of church handbells and travelled to nursing homes, assisted living, and Alzheimer’s places. If we made a few mistakes, the audiences seemed to appreciate it anyway.

It wasn’t long before the travelling band lost its rehearsal time at the church and the church restricted the handbells from travelling. What was the group to do?

Buy four octaves of handbells, of course, and rehearse in a family room. The group grew in numbers and equipment as people became excited about the opportunity to ring a variety of challenging music for eager audiences. As more people joined, a second set of handbells were purchased (so we could double positions as new ringers acclimated to the increasingly more challenging music). The group now numbers 15 people who ring on 6-1/2 octaves of handbells (C3 to E8) and 7 octaves of handchimes (C2 to C8).

When the group acquired the lower chimes (racks and all), they outgrew the family room so a 20 by 25 foot great room addition was added to the house. They also outgrew packing the equipment into the Honda Odyssey van, so a trailer was added.

There you have it; 1,000 pounds of equipment with a replacement cost of $48,000 are hauled out 26 times a year to those same senior citizen places as well as churches that do not have handbells, by 15 eager ringers. The group likes to say “We ring to eat”, but I think the real glue is the ministry of music and the camaraderie the group enjoys.

Postscipt: Celebration didn’t miss an Area 5 Spring or Fall festival from 2002 to 2012 and celebrated its 12th year in 2012. Several members of the group sub into other local church handbell choirs who are missing members as well as travel to other areas and national events on a regular basis.

Post-Postscript: The musical wife and the athletic husband did audition successfully for Renaissance Ringers led by Dean Wagner several years after the summer 2000 festival, and rang with the group for several years until it was disbanded. They also rang with the Distinctly Bronze European tour group and attended their fourth DB West event in Bremerton Washington in 2012.

Post-Post-Postscript: Celebration sponsored a 15 member high school teen choir for four years. The Celebration Teens group was a natural outgrowth of the 3rd through 8th grade handbell program (beginning, intermediate, and advanced) at the parochial school where two of our adult members direct. The teens, who attended 7 different high schools, were arguably a better choir than the adults but they didn’t get out as much for concerts due to their busy high school schedules. That group has graduated from college now, but we are looking forward to starting our second Celebration Teens group in the fall of 2020, if the pandemic subsides and all the puzzle pieces fall into place.