The Harbor Bells Ring in the Holidays… Literally

The Harbor Bells performing their Christmas concert at St. Andrews Church in Sag Harbor on Sunday, December 6. The choir performs again on Sunday, December 20 at 4 p.m. in the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church.
The Harbor Bells performing their Christmas concert at St. Andrews Church in Sag Harbor on Sunday, December 6. The choir performs again on Sunday, December 20 at 4 p.m. in the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church. Michael Heller photo.

By Annette Hinkle

The holidays are a time of annual traditions observed — and though the weather outside may be frightfully warm, for many on the East End, December means taking in a concert by the Harbor Bells, the community English handbell choir based in Sag Harbor.

The playing of handbells can be traced as far back as 5th Century B.C. China, but in their current incarnation, they probably date to 18th century England. English handbells came to the United States in the 1830s or so and from there, grew in popularity through the 19th century before falling out of favor in the beginning of the 20th century. But enthusiasm for them returned in the decades after World War II and today, there are handbell choirs all around the country. (A group called the Raleigh Ringers are perhaps the top of the heap when it comes to bell choirs and worthy of a YouTube search).

For pretty much every bell choir, including the Harbor Bells, Christmas is high season. There’s just something about bells ringing out a familiar tune that puts people in the spirit and each year, the Harbor Bells offer up a menu of seasonal favorites — from “Jingle Bells” and “Do You Hear What I Hear” to “Deck the Halls” and “Silver Bells.”

The group performed two shows earlier this month — one at Peconic Landing on the North Fork and a second at St. Andrew’s Church in Sag Harbor. This Sunday at 4 p.m., the Harbor Bells will play their final Christmas concert of the 2015 season at the venerable Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church on Montauk Highway.

“A lot of people come year after year and it’s really nice,” attests Harbor Bell’s director, the aptly named Valarie Bell. “They make it their holiday tradition. Because our first concerts are at the beginning of December, it brings in the season. So many people say they play the CD when they decorate the tree.”

That’s right — this is a handbell choir that has recorded not one, but two CDs, one a selection of Christmas favorites and another of Broadway tunes.

Truth be told, the Harbor Bells hold a special place in my heart, not only because I can’t resist the sentimentality of those old time carols, but because among my many random talents, I count my well-honed ability as an English Handbell ringer.

After a hiatus of several years, I rejoined the Harbor Bells this past fall. They were down a couple of ringers and I thought it might be fun to jump back in for a few months and reacquaint myself with the intricacies of synchronized playing.

For the uninitiated, that’s basically what playing bells is all about. The 40 or so bells in the Harbor Bells collection cost about $10,000 and range in size from big bass bells with a deep timbre to lilting angelic notes of the tiniest bells high in the treble range.

When playing, the bells are lined up in order like the notes on a piano, left to right from lowest to highest note. There are 10 ringers in the choir, which means we each act like a finger on the hand of a piano player. Each of us has roughly two full notes that we play, including sharps and flats, which adds up to about four bells each.

I, for example, play B and C in the bass line — which means my notes are B flat to C sharp. Those are the only notes I play and though it sounds easy enough, because we’re individuals, not fingers on a hand, it’s vital that we count measures accurately and ring our particular notes exactly when we’re supposed to in order to play the song correctly.

When we get lost, sometimes it’s hard to get back on track. That’s when we take our eyes off our music and look up at Ms. Bell who is silently mouthing the measures so we can (hopefully) rejoin the song in the proper location. Audience members have been known to remark on how serious we all look while we’re playing, but it’s hard to smile when you’re focused on staying on track.

But fortunately as handbell choirs go, Harbor Bells is pretty good at what they do. They’ve been at it since 2006 and in recent years, Ms. Bell has added several new, challenging pieces to the holiday repertoire. This season, for example, there are a number of songs that call for the use of mallets, especially in the bass lines. Mallets are sticks with little balls at the end that are used to hit the bells as they lie on the table. For me, the effect is somewhat therapeutic (as hitting things with a stick often is) and the sound is akin to a xylophone which allows for some real syncopated rhythms.

So if you think English handbells are stuck in old world music, think again. Ms. Bell is always on the lookout for new material for the Harbor Bells to take on — and some of what she has in mind just might surprise you.

“If you want to hear something special, let me know,” she says of audiences. “Last year we did ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and recently I found The Beatles ‘Eleanor Rigby.’”

Well, that one certainly is English.

The Harbor Bells perform at the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church on Main Street this Sunday, December 20 at 4 p.m. Admission is free with a good will offering. Food pantry donations are encouraged.

Here are the top questions (and answers) that are asked by audiences at the Harbor Bells concerts.

Q: Why do you wear gloves when you play?

A: In the old days, the bells were made with stiff leather handles and over time, the oil from players hands would cause the handles to get soft so the bells couldn’t be rung properly.

Q: How do you get all those sounds?

A: Believe it or not, in addition to straightforward ringing, bells can be plucked (using a finger to flick the clapper against the wall of the bell while it’s lying on a table), thumb damped (thumb held tightly to the bell which gives it a muted tone), marted (pushing a ringing bell straight into a padded table), wowed (ringing the bell and then gently tapping it on a padded table over and over to make it reverberate).

Q: How long do you practice?

A: The Harbor Bells practice an hour and a half to two hours every week from September through December.

Q: Is it really hard to play?

A: It helps if you can read music, but once your music is marked for your notes, focus and an ability to count is really a bell ringer’s best ally.

Q: Can I try a bell.

A: Sure, don’t be afraid to give it a strong shake.