Ringing The Choir’s Bells

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The Harbor Bell Choir playing at St. Andrews Church in Sag Harbor of 2015. Michael Heller photo

The Harbor Bell Choir playing at St. Andrews Church in Sag Harbor of 2015. Michael Heller photo

By Annette Hinkle

You probably haven’t given it much thought before, but historically speaking, bells have long been responsible for transmitting messages to the masses.

Whether it was a meeting in town square or a call to the faithful to assemble in the pews on Sunday, before there were wristwatches and iPhones, villagers and city dwellers the world over relied on local bell towers to tell them the time of day and when they needed to show up, where. They were also a source of amplified entertainment and even now, nearly every small town in Europe still has a tower with a full assortment of bells tuned to different notes that act as massive instruments capable of carrying a tune for miles.

Yes, bells really are instruments and at some point in the middle ages they migrated inside, taking up residence in churches in the form of English handbells. This unique way of making music found its way to the U.S. in the 19th century and though their popularity has come and gone over the years, these days the playing of English handbells seems to be on the upswing (so to speak), and bell choirs are alive and well across the country — including one right here on the East End.

Meet the Harbor Bells, a Sag Harbor-based community English handbell choir that is in very high demand during the holidays. That’s because handbells naturally lend themselves to Christmas music, and this year, fans of the genre will have the opportunity to hear the Harbor Bells ring not once, not twice but three times in free concerts on both the North and South Forks.

On most calendars, Christmas falls in late December, but for these ringers it comes much earlier. In September, members of the Harbor Bells began meeting weekly to practice their holiday repertoire in a space they rent from the Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Church in Bridgehampton.

One Monday night in October, I stopped by to see how the group was progressing and asked the choir’s aptly named director, Valarie Bell, for a run down of holiday classics people can expect to hear at this year’s concerts.

“We’re bringing back ‘O Holy Night,’ that’s a staple,” said Ms. Bell. “Then we have ‘Angels we have heard on high.’ We’re also doing ‘Good King Wenceslas’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.’”

The Harbor Bells' bells. Annette Hinkle photo

The Harbor Bells’ bells. Annette Hinkle photo

Because bells were created as church-based instruments, most of the music written for them is along the lines of the sacred and worshipful — especially around Christmas. These songs may be traditional carols, but the way in which many of them are played is not — and that’s one way handbell music has been updated for the 21st century. One song in the Harbor Bells holiday line up features Caribbean style drumming in the bass line, a sound accomplished not by ringing the bells, but by playing them on the table, xylophone-like, and striking them with cloth-covered mallets.

“That one’s been really popular,” Ms. Bell confessed.

Joining a handbell choir is a big commitment and finding players who can read music and are all available to practice on the same night can be a huge challenge. So Ms. Bell is always on the lookout for likely new ringers. Choirs like the Harbor Bells own multiple octaves and 40 or more bells ranging in size and pitch from big bass bells to tiny twinkling bells in the uppermost register of the scale. Unlike a piano, where one person with 10 fingers plays 88 keys alone, a handbell choir needs upwards of 10 people (each acting as a “finger” so to speak) covering at least two full notes each — that’s a minimum of four bells including the sharps and flats.

For the record, I have been a Harbor Bells player myself in past years, and as it turns out, they were one ringer short on the night of my visit. So I jumped into my old spot manning the four bells in the B and C bass line for old times sake.

As I took my spot at the table and picked up the bells, I glanced at the music before me with a start. At their Christmas concerts, the bell choir traditionally plays one secular tune, and what I was looking at wasn’t “Jingle Bells,” or “Deck the Hall” but something new, and very different — a familiar little ditty by Led Zeppelin called “Stairway to Heaven.”

I glanced at Ms. Bell and noticed a sly grin on her face. I knew what this was about — The Raleigh Ringers.

It’s hard to describe the astounding talent of this bell choir out of North Carolina. The Raleigh Ringers are a seven octave behemoth who take on some of the most confounding and challenging handbell music ever written. They’ve made several CDs, taken their ringing skills on the road for world tours, and their concerts have been broadcast on PBS stations around the country.

For Valarie Bell, who has been directing and ringing herself for decades, the pinnacle of handbell ringing has always been The Raleigh Ringers, and the holy grail of all handbell songs is their version of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

Ms. Bell and several of her players heard The Raleigh Ringers in person at a handbell conference (yes, there is such a thing) more than a decade ago. The experience has never left her.

“The Raleigh Ringers are the epitome of handbell choirs,” she said. “When I saw them, they were playing ‘Stairway To Heaven.’”

“We had chills,” she said. “I tried to go home and get the score, but it was not to be had. I called up Jeffers [Handbell Supply] they said the music had been specially written for the Raleigh Ringers and they won’t release it.”

“I even brought the guitar and piano score in,” said Ms. Bell. “But we couldn’t pull it together.”

And that’s where the situation has stayed for years … Until recently.

A couple months ago as she was gearing up for the beginning of the Christmas concert season, Ms. Bell went online to order some new music for the choir and there it was — “Stairway to Heaven” for handbells.

“I immediately ordered it,” she said. “I’m so thrilled. It sounds so great and I’ve wanted to play it forever. We have three octaves, but it can be filled in a lot more. We also play chimes that will come into it and the melody in that one section sounds really cool.”

It would appear that Valarie Bell’s Christmas gift has arrived early this year, and come December, fans of the Harbor Bells can expect “Stairway to Heaven” to have a starring role at the holiday concert.

“We try to play one non-Christmas song every year. This one is the pinnacle for me,” admitted Ms. Bell. “I think we’re getting more people coming to the concert to hear it.”

It’s true that Led Zeppelin may be one of the most non-traditional choices for a handbell choir you can find; in an odd way, like those bell towers of yore, this particular number still offers a message to the faithful.

And it’s all about finding a way to heaven …

The Harbor Bells perform on the North Fork on Friday, December 9 at 7:30 p.m. at Peconic Landing (1500 Brecknock Road, Greenport). South Fork concerts include a Saturday, December 10 performance at the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church (2429 Montauk Highway, Bridgehampton) at 4 p.m. followed by a performance at St. Andrews Church (122 Division Street, Sag Harbor) on Sunday, December 18 at 4 p.m. All of the concerts are free and open to the public with a good will offering requested.

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