Freed from obligations related to Refuge, the task for which he was hired, Bryan Sable took on the task of resurrecting St. Paul’s handbell choir. I have always wanted to try playing handbells, so I volunteered to be part of the new choir. Perilously close to Christmas, we began practicing for a Christmas Eve debut.
Prior to Christmas Eve, St. Paul’s new group of ringers had only two real rehearsals, with a different mix of personnel each time. A third rehearsal was cancelled because most people could not attend. We were slated to have a quick practice before the 7:30 service on Monday, but we spent most of our time setting up and getting organized. Not everyone showed up on time.
If you’ve never played handbells, it may not be apparent how problematic it is not to have the same ringers present each time you play. In essence, each ringer is a piece of an instrument. Remove one ringer and the instrument has to be reconfigured or parts of it simply will not play. I was never quite sure which bells I would be responsible for when we finally played in church.
As the only male in the group other than Bryan, I was assigned to handle the lowest (i.e., biggest) bells. My assumed qualifications for this were strength and the ability to read bass clef. The advantage of the assignment was that I was not constantly ringing, and I didn’t have to master the technique of ringing two bells in one hand.
Our group may not have been sexually diverse, but we were certainly diverse in terms of experience. The choir included the likes of Jan Toth, who always looks cool and competent, as well as others who at least had some handbell experience. My knowledge of handbells, on the other hand, was limited to watching ringers rather uncritically and with a sense of awe.
I quickly realized that the ability to read music is useful, but it is not the most important handbell-playing skill. The critical facilities are mechanical and mental ones: remembering which bells are in which hand, switching bells quickly, ringing bells reliably and consistently. My hardest job was ringing two bells at once and immediately ringing two different bells at once.
At our last full rehearsal, when I tried to ring the D4 bell, the handle broke off in my hand and the casting (i.e., the bell proper) fell to the table. (Maybe it was the D3 bell. I’m still learning which bell is which.) This was inauspicious. The handle is a flexible plastic strap, and it snapped off in the two places where it met the bell. Examining the damaged instrument, it seemed that it contained, as they say in the consumer electronics industry, no user-serviceable parts. It was not clear that we would have a usable D4 bell for Christmas Eve.
Bryan came to the rescue. He consulted the manufacturer, which promised express delivery of a new handle assembly. What neither Bryan nor I realized was that, although there was no way to replace the strap, which was attached with four rivets, the entire handle assembly attaches to the casting with a small bolt. A completely new handle assembly arrived at St. Paul’s on Monday.
There was good news and bad news in having a working D4 bell. Obviously, having the bell had the potential to improve our performance. The bad news, of course, was that I had one more bell to handle.
For the 7:30 service on Christmas Eve, the handbell tables were set up in the church behind the last pews in the nave. We were to play an arrangement of “Away in a Manger” before the service and “Silent Night,” along with the organ, near the end of the service when the hymn was to be sung by the choir and congregation.
For much of Monday afternoon, I was watching instructional videos on YouTube. (Yes, there are such things.) I did pick up a few useful tips, but the overall effect of my watching these videos was to increase my already high anxiety about the evening’s performance. I suddenly realized just how much I didn’t know about handbell playing!
We had essentially no practice time Monday night. Our performance, though certainly not a disaster, was well short of adequate. In addition to the problems I was already having, mostly related to switching bells quickly, I experienced two other problems I did not fully appreciate. I don’t know if everyone was as affected as I was.
Just before we played “Away in a Manger,” I had the fleeting thought that we should perhaps tell the ushers to keep people away from the ringers as we played. Deciding that I was being obsessive, I failed to act on my concern. Big mistake! As we began playing, worshipers walked behind me in a steady stream. My problem with this was not simple claustrophobia. My problem was that the piece began with tower swings, a movement involving ringing the bell in front of me and swinging it backward as if it were ringing in a bell tower. The fact that I was actually hitting people as they passed behind me did not stop the flow of people. (What were they thinking?) I was very much rattled by this and did not recover easily or quickly.
The second problem was anticipated. “Silent Night” was to be played in relative darkness. I asked Rich Creehan to give us more light than he had originally provided, and he obliged. We never practiced with the organ in dim light, however. The task turned out to be much harder than I expected. It was difficult to get my face close enough to the music so that I could read it and remain far enough from the table that I could actually ring my bells. St. Paul’s has some battery-operated lamps for our music stands, but they seemed not to have fresh batteries, so we did not try to use them. Too bad.
I hope to continue as a bell ringer, but I may need a bit of time to recover my composure after my Christmas Eve experience. Perhaps the bell choir will play at Easter. If so, I will refuse to play at the back of the church before a service.
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