“Hark how the bells,
sweet silver bells,
all seem to say,
throw cares away.”
-Carol of the Bells
When they were first developed in England some 300 years ago, handbells were actually intended to be a practice tool for bell tower ringers (also called change ringers). After all, it’s not like you can practice ringing church bells whenever the mood strikes you.
But it didn’t take long for an appreciation for the sweet, magical sound of the bronze bell to grow, and today handbells are a musical force of their own, complete with their own musical arrangements, competitions and performances.
“It’s really exploded in the last 40 to 50 years,” said Nikki Attwell, a Kelowna-based handbell ringer and choir director.
“What I like about it,” she said, “is that handbells are a completely unique way to make music. It’s a different way of thinking, and it’s a challenge for most people. It’s a collaborative experience, because everyone is needed. If you’re not at handbell choir, your notes are gone. You need everyone there for it to work.”
While it is possible to play handbell solos (something Nikki has done in the past), the bell choir requires all the bells in an arrangement – and their respective ringers – in order to create a melody. While vocal choirs, symphonies and bands may have several voices or instruments playing one part, none of the notes in a bell choir are doubled up. Also, while instruments will generally play a whole line of music at a time in an ensemble, bell ringers jump in with random notes, so timing is even more important.
Nikki started playing the handbells in 1977, at a school in Calgary, Alberta, where handbell ringing was part of the curriculum. She’s since played in six different groups in three provinces. She took up directing after she moved to the Okanagan from Ontario in 2004.
She currently directs two groups – the Alleluia Ringers from First United Church in Kelowna and the Rutland Handbell Choir from the Rutland Seventh-day Adventist Church.
While her bell choirs perform year-round, she says there is an increased demand for them around Christmas time.
“People love to see and hear them the most at Christmas – probably because bells are so closely associated with Christmas. There are lots of references to bells in Christmas songs and carols,” she said.
Nikki’s groups play on three octaves, which requires 37 bells and 11 ringers. While it’s possible to get up to eight octaves, Nikki says that three or four are most common. A typical assignment for each ringer is two notes and their accidentals, putting them in charge of up to five bells each.
For a sample of ensemble bell ringing, click here to take in this past weekend’s performance of Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming, by the Alleluia Ringers (pictured), at First United Church Kelowna.
The group will be performing again at First United, on the corner of Bernard Avenue and Richter Street, along with the Merrie Pipers recording group, soprano Dawn Mussellam and mezzo-soprano Karen Medland, at 2 p.m. 19 December (admission is $10). They will also perform at Mission Hill Estate Winery in West Kelowna 11 December, in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the instillation of the winery’s bell tower.
– Words and photos by Lori-Anne Poirier