Young bell-ringers toiling to create the lovely sound of a church choir reborn

October 16, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

From the silvery "ping" of the smallest to the deep-throated "bong" of the largest, the polished bronze bells blended, note by note, into Faure's flowing anthem "Pie Jesu."

The ringers' inexperience produced an occasional clinker, but "they'll be ready by the end of the month," pledged Lydia Bobes, who is melding a handful of veterans with a group of tyros to revive the St. Anthony's Church Handbell Choir in Gardenville.

The gloved bell-ringers stand behind a long table covered with 3-inch-thick foam padding. Their lips move constantly as they count, silently, ready to flick their wrists at the proper split second to add their individual notes to the music.

"I have to count, and sometimes I mess up," confessed St. Anthony's sixth-grader Thais Jackson, 11, a newcomer who said she was delighted with her new instrument.

Her confusion isn't surprising. Bell-ringing is a complex art. Different techniques produce various tones. The bell clappers, adjustable for volume and tone, are padded with heavy felt or rubber and strike in only one direction.

Sometimes the bells are thrust forward and sounded with a flick of the wrist. Sometimes they are swung nearly at arm's length, or revolved in a circle or even struck on the padded table or with mallets. They may be pulled back against the ringer's chest to damp, or silence, a note immediately, or allowed to sound, depending on the length of the note in the score.

For Ms. Bobes, 39, St. Anthony's music director and a professional musician who began playing piano at age 3, assembling and training a handbell choir has been a learning adventure. She had had no experience with the art when several former ringers approached her about reactivating the choir, which was disbanded nearly two years ago.

She attended a crash course in handbell-ringing at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J., late in July. "We spent eight hours a day ringing bells, along with other courses about this type of music," Ms. Bobes said.

When she returned, she began recruiting a dozen ringers -- among them three sets of sisters, including her own two daughters. They play the five octaves of bells, 60 in all, that St. Anthony's had acquired over the years.

Ms. Bobes said most bell choirs have 10 ringers but she "wanted 12,so no one would have more than two bells, because there are so many new players."

Some of the older members, though, can wield as many as four or five bells during a single composition.

The ringers, who range in age from 6 to 24, began weekly practice in early September, with some private tutoring for the newcomers and mandatory makeups for those who miss rehearsals.

"I've explained the need for commitment and attendance," Ms. Bobes said. "People have to be there because a bell choir is a team. I can fill in the notes on the piano during rehearsal when someone's not there, but not in a performance."

The young musicians mark their individual notes on the sheet music with colored ink. It's as if each ringer is one finger in playing the piano. "You have to know the note values and how to count so you know when to come in," Ms. Bobes said.

The new St. Anthony's Handbell Choir will make its debut, playing "Pie Jesu," at 4 o'clock Mass Oct. 31 and will perform on alternate Saturdays after that.

Handbell-ringing is an old music form, Ms. Bobes said. It originated in 16th-century England as practice for change-ringing, the ringing of church tower bells of different tones in specific sequences.

The ringers used handbells to practice the sequences because the peals -- the set of tuned bells in the church steeples -- required too much heavy tugging on long ropes. Eventually, handbell-ringing became a separate musical art form.

Bell choirs are occasionally called Swiss bell-ringers, but that is a misnomer, Ms. Bobes said.

The legendary showman P. T. Barnum coined that phrase when he brought the first handbell choir to the United States in 1845. It apparently didn't matter to him that the ringers came from Lancashire, England.

The first U.S. bell choir was established in 1923 by a wealthy Boston woman who visited England and imported bells to found her own group.

Today, the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers, based in Dayton, Ohio, promotes the activity.

Veronica Baublitz, 24, is the oldest member of the new St. Anthony's Church Bell Choir. She played in the original group while a student at St. Anthony's Parochial School.

"I heard it was starting up again, so I decided to come," Mrs. Baublitz said. "It sounds corny, but I haven't been a regular churchgoer recently, and now that I have a child of my own, I felt I should go. Now I have something that brings me here. I was very nervous at first, about the counting and the notes, but it's like riding a bicycle: It all came back. It's different; there aren't a lot of people I know who do it."

Stacey Bandzwolek, 16, and her sister, Kelly, 15, are veteran ringers who can play as many as four or five bells in a single composition.

"It's almost like a ritual. We're used to it," Kelly said.

Stacey added, "It's fun, and it's a service to the church."

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