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Posts Tagged ‘bell choir’

edited by Nancy Mairs

In the 1500s, English bell-ringers rang their tower church bells in intricate numerical patterns instead of the melodies we know today. They called this numerical method “change ringing,” and it required hours of practice. The bell-ringers needed a way to practice their intricate patterns without disturbing their nearby village neighbors, and that was the genesis of handbells. Eventually, tune ringing of handbells was accepted as its own art form, and their performance in churches became more popular.1

The long tradition of including handbells as part of the music program at Richmond’s First Baptist Church began in 1962 when a member asked Dr. Theodore F. Adams, Senior Pastor (1936-1968) if the church would be interested in a set of handbells that she wanted to donate. Dr. Adams asked Dr. Ray Herbek, Minister of Music (1962-1989), who agreed to take the donation even though he knew nothing about handbells.

Handbells Have a Long TraditionThat fall, Dr. Herbek taught himself to play handbells and then taught his sons. By Thanksgiving they had learned to play the Doxology, and premiered it at the Thanksgiving service. Dr. Herbek later commented, “Even my youngest son made a ‘ding’ at the end. It sold the handbells to the congregation.” 2

Because there were very few published music pieces for handbells in those days, Dr. Herbek started arranging music and adapted organ pieces like “Trumpet Tune” and “Trumpet Voluntary.” The bell choir often played from his manuscripts before his arrangements were published, and by the time Dr. Herbek retired in 1989, he had composed 21 volumes of handbell music.

Handbells Have a Long Tradition

Boys’ Bell Choir at the White House

Later in the 1960s, an all-boy handbell choir was formed, and they began to ring outside of the church walls. On a trip to Bermuda they played 17 times in one week. Under Dr. Herbek’s leadership choirs played at the White House on six separate occasions (the first in 1969), playing for Presidents Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and George H. W. Bush.

Susan Atkins, a member of the current FBC handbell choir, remembers that Dr. Herbek later formed bell choirs by requiring those auditioning to take a music theory test that involved rhythm questions. A typical question would be, “What beat is this note on?” The eight highest scorers then won spots in the choir.

The first bell choir Sue participated in performed a piece that required nine bells. She remembers that the person who had scored the highest on the test was given two bells to play! One morning they were to play in church that person was sick, so Allen Brown was asked to step in and play.

Later, a girls’ bell choir began, and in the 1970s, an adult handbell choir was formed.  Since those early trips to Bermuda and the White House, the FBC bell choirs have traveled extensively around the world, including Canada, Mexico, England, Scotland, Germany, Slovakia and Romania. As Sue remembers, “Many times we would play in churches in different towns and then go home with church members to stay in their homes overnight. The missionaries used us to draw a crowd to the concert, as the bells had no language barrier.”

Handbells Have a Long Tradition

FirstRingers

Today, 27 ringers make up three levels of handbell choirs at FBC. FirstRingers, which was formed in 1991, is the adult bell choir. They perform monthly and also travel to retirement communities regularly to share music. Joyful Ringers began in 2013, and is the adult beginner group, performing about four concerts per year as part of the Sunday worship service. The newest choir, Alegria Youth Bells, is composed of our teenage students.

Our handbell choirs add a unique element to our services, creating and enhancing our worship environment as we seek to draw closer to God. That’s something to make a joyful noise about!

 

1Handbell History.” Lancaster Hand Bell Ensemble, Lancaster First Presbyterian Church.

2White, B. and Anderson, F. (2006). The Open Door, A History of First Baptist Church Richmond, Virginia. Richmond, Virginia: First Baptist Church, pp.225, 434.


Listen to the Boys’ Handbell Choir from the album At the Manger recorded with the Church Choir and Quartet.
What Is This Lovely Fragrance?
Shepherds, Shake Off Your Drowsy Sleep
Hark, Now, O Shepherds
Angels We Have Heard on High

Watch the video from FirstRingers on mission in Cloppenberg, Germany, 2001.

Watch videos of recent FirstRingers performances.

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