I’m not quite sure where or how Elizabeth Beardsley found the old bronze handbells, still in immaculate ringing condition, but she brought the seventeen in her collection north to form a distinctive organisation and to contribute a joyful sound to our community. The bells cover a full octave, but include notes on either side, especially F# and two sets of Bb and C# so that an amazing variety of tunes can be pulled out of the hat (mostly transposed to the key of G).
The little group rehearses at 3pm every Wednesday (every Wednesday except for the third Wednesday, when rehearsal changes to the Monday of that week at 4pm) in the Common Room of Arnison Close. I’ve been meaning to get to a session ever since Elizabeth told me about the group after a New Year’s Eve ceilidh some years ago now, but finally made it this past Wednesday. Handbells are an emotional signifier to me of my real youth, in a teenage handbell choir at church, touring around Pennsylvania in concert session.
So Elizabeth has each handbell identified with place setting numbers, and the numbers are carefully written in place of notes on a giant stave marked out in sections according to the time signature. Often she leads from within the choir, murmuring the held beats to keep everyone together. Each bell bongs once for each note, in a richly vibrating, resonant tone, but depending on the number in the choir (you get one bell in each hand, so two per person, usually, though sometimes you might be asked to pick up another one for flexibility), lovely harmonies can be resolved as well as the melody.
The little choir were rehearsing for their presentation at the Easter service in St. Cuthbert’s church, and they played three hymns for me: The strife is o’er; The Head that once was crowned with thorns; Thine be the glory. I liked the first one best, but I could detect the melody well enough of the other two, of course.
The group, ranging in numbers from 5-8, have played at a variety of venues over the past few years: Ninebanks church and hall during the remembrances of World War I, when they learned ‘Pack up your troubles‘ and ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’; the Hemmel Café at Allenheads; the Allendale Village Hall at the 10th anniversary celebrations of the renovated park; the Chrysalis rooms at the Torch Centre; various Care Homes throughout the region. At each venue, Elizabeth has recruited participation from the audience, and people have met up with the challenge of hitting the correct time with the muted clang of the bells. As one of the kind ladies said to me this afternoon: “We’re noticing, and fixing, timing issues much more now than when we started!” But still the group could use some new members to get all the bells in the set in full swing, as it were.
They got me into the middle of the choir in a comfortable seat to help play the Water of Tyne, voted some years ago as Northumberland’s favourite folk song, and by the time we’d run through the tune several times, and I stopped coming in too quickly, I could easily sense the tune!
I always understood that handbells were invented as a convenient way for beginners to bell ringing to learn how to ring the changes (a very mathematical procedure), without going through the physical exertions demanded by the belfry ropes, but that the handbells, being particularly melodic, eventually became an instrument in and of themselves. Certainly it’s a different sort of approach to music than participating in say a vocal choir.
The difference is that your ‘voice’ is limited to the two bells that you handle. So you watch the score for your two bells, and from a stasis, you suddenly must engage into clanging the bell at the right time, holding for the right number of beats, and then hushing if required (hushing involves carefully bringing the bell to your chest to dampen the vibrations). It’s not like singing where you share in all the notes, but rather it’s a shared sense of being the collective instrument, as if you are but one pedal on the great church organ. So even though the collective sound can be pleasing, for the audience, it can be very individualistic for the performers. Elizabeth said that potential recruits sometimes find the individual bells ‘clangy’ somehow, and off-putting. But when the collective sound is so lovely, a kind of angelic brass emerging from devoted concentration, it can all contribute to a joint epiphany between ringers and listeners. Almost anyone, actually, can manage to ring a handbell.
So more ringers would be delightfully received (tunes in the repertoire range from Beatles pop classics through jazz and real classical items (Dvorak’s New World Symphony was mentioned, and Finlandia), to the old songs like Bobby Shaftoe and My Grandfather’s Clock, so there really is something for everyone) and I can vouch for the fact that the group are friendly and non-critical (still able to correct mistakes for the greater good, of course), non-judgemental is a better sense, perhaps. It was definitely fun for me to relive just a small section of my teenage years, and to participate in the collective experience of handbell ringing again. The sessions are relaxed, comfy and cheerful, and you’d be very welcome to drop in and listen, learn and enjoy!