Articles By Ringers, For Ringers
More Than Just Music
By Sue Dix
I first encountered handbells at Wesley Woods, a United Methodist Church camp. It was an elective and it was instantly one of the most fun things that I had ever done. Soon after that, through donations, our church started to acquire our set of handbells and gradually we bought 5 octaves of bells and 4 octaves of Malmark choir chimes.
I began playing when I was in my teens and, with a few short breaks, have been playing ever since. We rehearse on Wednesday nights and it is the time of the week that I most look forward to. Whatever my work week has been, when I step into our bell room, everything melts away and I feel uplifted by my fellow bell ringers, my director, and the music that we make together. Aside from the sound of the ringing, I love the feel of the bells in my hands when they are still and when they are moving. It is a unique musical instrument. I play the piano and sing but there is something very special about playing an instrument that is at once an individual and a group effort. When my individual effort has been the best, it has been because our group effort has been the best. If my playing is near perfect but the ensemble is not, I lose something in my playing. My greatest thrill is when we all feel the music together because then we are truly making music not just playing notes.
Because we are a church bell group, our music making is very spiritual in nature. Our fellowship together enhances our musical experience, and since we play during our church services, our playing becomes even more meaningful to me; it aids me in my worship experience and aids in the congregation’s worship experience. So, in short, bell ringing feeds my soul and allows me to minister to others. We take the summers off, and by the time September rolls around, I need to hold those bells again. I need to feel the vibration of the notes as I damp the bells against my shoulders. I need to feel the music resonating through my body and lifting me to a higher sensibility. I know that may sound a bit corny, but bell playing is such a physical experience that I don’t know how else to express the feeling.
This is what bell playing means to me and this why I play.
Sue Dix has rung for Fideles Nola, the adult handbell Choir at Grandville United Methodist Church, Grandville, Michigan, for the past 35 years. Her most thrilling concerts have been under the direction of Don Allured at Bay View Week of Handbells in Bay View, Michigan.
Do YOU have a story to share about your handbell and handchime ringing experiences?
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Please contact Rima Greer.
Two-Question Interviews with Handbell Notables
This Month’s Personality: Nancy Hascall
How did you first become involved in the handbell community?
I began ringing in a fledgling bell choir at Lake Grove Presbyterian Church in 1979. The director, Pat Noel, knew as little as the rest of us about ringing when she took the job but was smart enough to join the Guild, take some classes, and start dragging us to festivals to soak up everything we could. I was fascinated by all of it— the massed ringing, hearing other choirs, attending classes, and performing a piece in a showcase concert. (Yes, she made us perform, even at the very first event we attended—and were we ever terrified!) Pat made sure we learned proper technique and always strove for musical excellence—a legacy that stayed with us far beyond her tenure, and for which I am most grateful.
After about ten years of watching solo ringers perform at those festivals, all the while thinking it might be fun to try if only I had the time, one summer I could stand it no longer. I borrowed bells from the church, set them up in my basement, and started practicing scales, exercises, & hymn tunes whenever I had 15 minutes to spare. Little did I know where that new “hobby” would eventually take me. The next summer (1990) I performed my first solo at an area festival, and from then on I’m afraid I went a little bonkers over bells, wanting to do everything at once. Within 3 years I had joined a community group, started a youth bell choir at my church, taken on a directing job at another church, organized a quartet, started arranging my own solos, and sold the music school I had operated for 15 years (to make more time for handbells, of course!)
A couple of years later, two events occurred that further sealed my fate: attending my first AGEHR Directors’ Seminar in St. Louis and discovering Handbell-L online. Suddenly my world became much bigger and smaller at the same time. Handbell musicians are such a gracious, caring community, openly willing to share their knowledge and encouragement as we explore this beautiful art together! Even today, as I sit at my desk writing about ringing, I am in daily contact with fellow ringers who regularly challenge and teach me. Though bells have taken me to Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia, and all over the U.S. (not to mention 11 handbell cruises), best of all are the handbell friends I’ve come to know and love, in spite of the geography that separates us. Music is truly a universal language.
Do you have an anecdote or funny story from your experiences with the handbell community?
One of the funniest things I can remember is a picture taken with an old camera, back when you could still accidentally double-expose the film if you weren’t paying attention. I had taken snapshots at two different events during the same year — a workshop taught by Donald Allured in Issaquah, Washington, and later at our local bell choir’s annual fall retreat. Imagine my surprise when I got the pictures back and found folks from the Issaquah event ringing between members of our own bell choir. I had double-exposed the entire roll! The best shot of all (which I have unfortunately been unable to locate or you’d be seeing it here) showed Maestro Don’s head right in the center of someone’s dinner plate, his expression animated by whatever he was conducting at the time — giving new meaning to the phrase “having an important guest for dinner.”
Handbell solo artist Nancy Hascall developed the system of techniques known as traveling four-in-hand and its accompanying notational devices. She tours nationally as a performer, and provides private coaching for bell choirs, ensembles, and soloists, including “destination” 3-day private solo ringing tutorials at her home in Oregon. She has served as a clinician for numerous handbell events throughout the US and Canada, as well as the 2006 International Handbell Symposium in Australia. Three of her many handbell compositions and arrangements have been performed at Distinctly Bronze events, and her Andromedawon the 2002 Bells of the Sound Composition Contest. Nancy has directed the Sanctuary Bells at First United Methodist Church in Portland since 1993, and recently retired from Bells of the Cascades after 14 years as its musical director. She still rings in the Covenant Bell Choir at Lake Grove Presbyterian Church, where she first learned to ring in 1979.