Practicing handbells at home between rehearsals isn’t quite the same as packing up a violin or a flute in its case. It more often requires substitutes – hairbrushes, spoons. Handbell ringers make music in ensemble, like an orchestra or a chorus, but in the case of handbells, the melody is built entirely note by note. Silence one bell, and you hear the gaps.
Let all of them ring, and you hear an enormous, shimmering sound, and in the case of Raleigh Ringers, the melody might be Bach, Stravinsky or Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“The hard thing with rock and roll,” says director David Harris, “is we try to do it totally with the instruments. We don’t have drums.” All of the percussion, the guitars, the vocals, are recreated with handbells. Perhaps by necessity, “the people in our choir are some of the best ringers out there.”
The group formed in 1990, and auditions (and re-auditions) its members every year (they still have two charter members, from 1990). They’ve recorded six CDs, commissioned more than 130 compositions, broadcast on 250 public television stations and performed in 39 states, three countries and D.C. Their collection of bells numbers more than 350, with bells made in the United States, London and the Netherlands (“the Dutch bells have very weird overtones” says Harris).
Harris grew up in the Presbyterian church, playing euphonium in the band and singing in the chorus. He compares handbell ringing to marching band – “there’s a lot of precision.”
There are lots of preconceptions about handbells, and being taken seriously can be a challenge. “We get a sort of look, oh, handbells.”
The ensemble (made up of between 15 and 18 musicians) rehearses for three and a half hours every week, and that’s often when they’ll come up with their ideas. “Someone will do something funny, or think of something,” says Harris. The creativity on stage in performances is often born from “things that happen off the cuff in rehearsal.”
Each year the ensemble commissions an average of three to five pieces – a total of between 130 and 140 right now. The Roanoke concert will likely include one of those, called “Resilience,” a piece that moves from “discord to beauty,” written by an alumnus of Penn State. Harris says he’s “90 percent sure” they’ll play J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg number three – mallets only, striking the bells – and most likely the Flight of the Bumblebee too (“I never thought that would see the light of day but it worked!”).
St. John’s brought the Raleigh Ringers to Roanoke a decade ago, and they’re back again November 12 with a 3:00 concert at Jefferson Center. The tickets are $25 and available through the box office.
The rest of the season includes the Roanoke Children’s Theatre (Oct. 6), Mozart’s final Mass for our annual All Saints Memorial Concert – in partnership with Second Presbyterian Church (Nov. 3), the Cardinal Ensemble, musicians from Roanoke Symphony (March 2) and organist Nathan Davy (April 20).