Christmas With Bells On

It isn’t too late to write about the holidays, right?

I spent much of this past Christmas season lifting dumbbells.  Or, rather, these:

English handbells!  Owing to an out-of-the-blue phone call from a family I knew in high school (but hadn’t had contact with for 15 years), I became part of a handbell choir in late October.  The bells are owned by Steve and Renee, who lived in Virginia back when I did, but have since retired and moved to Sandy.  For decades, Steve has hauled out his bells every holiday season and rounds up a bunch of music enthusiasts to practice and play carols here and there.  I was part of his bell choir when I was a teenager and absolutely adored it.  It was thrilling to have the chance to play them again.

Each member of the choir is assigned two bells and its accompanying accidentals.  My job was to mind the bass E and F — two of the heaviest bells, hence the name “dumbbells” — which were assigned to me because I can read bass clef.  The clappers of each bell are held silent by a rubber “spring” (I think you can kind of see it in the picture.)  That way, the bell only makes sound when the ringer flicks his or her wrist hard enough to overcome the spring, allowing for accurate note-playing.  To silence the bells, you hold them against your chest, which means I had two little sore spots just below my breastbone after the first rehearsal.

The bells are made of brass, which can tarnish easily if they are touched often, so everyone wears little white cotton gloves during rehearsals and performances.  It always made me feel like a magician ready to pull a rabbit out of something.

It’s fun to play something so percussive, especially with all the various techniques we use to achieve different sounds out of the bells.  Bells are shaken, hit with mallets, muted with thumbs, swung up and down, waved back and forth, plucked, “marked” — this is when you slam the bell down on a table covered with foam to make a staccato — and “mark-lifted,” where you slam the bell down and then immediately lift it to make a kind of pluck-echo.  My favorite technique that I got to do involved ringing the bell, and then gently brushing it against the table in circles, making a kind of dinnnnng-wing-wing-wing sound.

My favorite performace of the season was on Christmas Eve.  We played for a community sing-in at the “rock church,” an old LDS chapel just west of the state Capitol buliding.  The chapel is old-fashioned and lovely, with a high arched ceiling delicately edged with swirls of gilding and paintings of flowers.  People from the neighborhood (as well as the “bell choir groupies,” as our families were called) came in street clothes to sing carols and hear the bells.  Afterwards, we all got to drink cider.  In the choir, you have to wear all black for performances (thank heavens it’s easy to find maternity shirts in that color) and one of the other choir members handed out little crocheted pins that looked like Christmas wreaths that she had made for us.

My entire family was able to be there, excepting my sister, whose daughters hadn’t been feeling well that day.  My stand partner, Mike, and I had fun pointing out our families’ various teenage hairstyles to each other.  (His son is fifteen and lanky; my brother is fifteen and has a wicked ‘fro.)  Eleanor was excited to sing the two or three carols that she had learned in church this year, and I could hear her little voice singing out loud and clear.

Afterwards, Jeffrey held my hand as I helped carry whatever lightweight choir-related objects I could out to Steve’s truck.  He was both excited and hushed at the same time, in that way that can somehow only be accomplished on Christmas Eve.  It was a wonderful evening.

One thought on “Christmas With Bells On

  1. Ahh, handbells! I played in a hand bell choir in high school too. They are so perfect for Christmas time. In our high school Christmas concerts, the hand bell choir would always start the concert with a number from the balcony just after the lights had dimmed.

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