Posts Tagged ‘handbells’

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


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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By Ruth Szucs. Photos by Win Grant and Ruth Szucs.

calloutStarting time, agendas, discussions, problem solving, share and prayer time – sounds like most teams at First Baptist. And like most teams at FBC, FirstRingers do much more.

The sounds of rehearsals are more than just notes; there are lots of “sorry,” “oops,”

photo by Win Grant

“you’ll get it,” and laughs. Handbell choir has been called the ultimate team sport because it takes every person ringing in perfect sync. In rehearsals we practice lots of grace as we try to get that perfect sync.

Ministry within our small group grows out of that grace. We share with each other, pray for each other, take meals to each other, visit each other. Reflecting on our group verse, Galatians 6:2, Mary Eldridge says, “We have truly become a community of believers together, bearing one another’s burdens.”

Concerts in Romania, England, Scotland, Germany, and Slovakia, as well as throughout North America, Virginia, and Richmond have given our members opportunities for ministry outside our group. Martha Grace Washington commented on one of the blessings of concerts: “As we play familiar hymns, faces begin to light up – the faces of the audience, as well as our own.” Perhaps our most memorable ministry went beyond concerts. In 2000, in Cloppenburg, Germany, we were matched, side by side, to a group of new bell ringers, teaching them how to ring. We also prayerwalked and witnessed in their community.

FirstRingers bell choir

photo by Win Grant

Worship, our most visible task, can become our most fearsome. Getting the right note can take over our hearts and minds. We have to get past that, get out of the way, and let the music speak. Janet Chase says, “When we ring, our desire is to contribute to worship a musical praise offering.” We hope people will not focus on us, but close their eyes, move into the sounds, and let themselves be transformed by the music. Mary reminds us that “We use our bell ringing to point beyond ourselves to the Maker of all music.”

There is a long tradition of handbell music at First. Janet remembers “ringing bells since high school age, first at Woodland Heights Baptist and then at FBC. One of the reasons I ventured across the river was to ring with Dr. (Ray) Herbek before he retired—the FBC choirs had a reputation statewide.”

FirstRingers bell choir

photo by Ruth Szucs

Although many FirstRingers began their bell experience in middle or high school, Sarah Amick joined rehearsals in 2007 with no previous training. She has grown since then in knowledge and comfort with ringing and shares that she is “thankful to be a part of a group that so loves God, music and people.” On a mission trip to Austria, Kathy Rock found herself playing handbells for the first time in a worship service. Later during that trip she taught a children’s group how to ring and has been ringing ever since.

However they began, all bell ringers agree with Susie West: Ringing “feeds my soul – the music and the fellowship. I love being part of a small group making music.”

FirstRingers bell choir

photo by Ruth Szucs

Members: Sarah Amick, Sue Atkins, Chuck Batteau, Janet Chase, Mary Eldridge, Robin Hendricks, Martha Pugh, Trudy Rickman, Kathy Rock, Linda Stevens, Martha Grace Washington, Melissa West, Susie West, Ruth Szucs, director.

Editor’s note: In fall 2012 two new handbell choirs will begin, one for seniors, meeting on Thursday afternoons, and one for youths on Wednesdays. If you are interested in participating, contact Ruth Szucs at 358-5458 ext 164.

Ruth SzucsRuth Szucs has been happily married to Richard for almost 22 years; they have two children, Alexandra and Matthew. She is the music assistant for FBC, focusing on handbells and youth and children’s choirs, and thoroughly enjoys directing hymns when Phil is unable to be “on the platform.” Ruth began working with children’s choirs when she was in middle school herself, then after joining FBC in 1987, volunteered in the music program until filling in as handbell interim director in 2000. She is currently teaching 11th grade Sunday school. Ruth likes to keep things stirred up, from hiding under a bell table after a botched handbell solo to looking for fun in as many places as possible. Out of church you can find her at a horse field with Alexandra, at a soccer field with Matthew, or escaping to the lake with Richard.

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