Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

February 22, 2014

Thirty years and still ringing

Local handbell choirs gearing up for annual festival

By Lindsey Ziliak
Kokomo Tribune

---- — They call themselves the Joyful Ringers.

Nearly a dozen women gather weekly inside the sanctuary of Shiloh United Methodist Church to play their handbells.

Wednesday night the choir members quickly slipped on their black gloves before performing their first song.

Cindy Ison, the choir’s director, said the gloves are important. The grips keep the pricey instruments from slipping out of their hands and protect the bells from the skin’s oils.

After offering the explanation, she turned back to her choir and cued the first song.

The women played a song called “Holy Manna.”

They never picked the handbells up, though. They performed the whole piece by tapping the bells with mallets.

“This is kind of a funny little technique we use,” one member said.

The Joyful Ringers played that song through several times, often stopping on certain measures that proved tricky for the group.

It was their second-to-last practice before the big show.

On March 1, the women will join handbell choirs from five other area churches and one from Indianapolis for a festival at Bible Baptist Church to celebrate the unusual instrument.

“The ringers practice at their own churches and then come together on Saturday and practice together with the other churches, working together as one ensemble,” said Mary Ellen Harnish, a member of Joyful Ringers.

This year is special. The festival is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

It’s being directed by Mike Kellar, a Peru native. Kellar has been the director of the Circle City Ringers since its ensemble was formed and also directs the Wesleyan Ringers of St. Luke's UMC in Indianapolis. “Mike is recognized for his conviction that making music should be fun,” Harnish said. “What he enjoys most about handbells is the challenge of making multiple ringers sound like one cohesive ensemble and also bringing the joy of this unique instrument to people who have not experienced it before.”

Choir member Susan Hall knew very little about the handbell up until two years ago when Shiloh United Methodist sought new members.

Why not try it out, she thought.

“I knew how to read music, and I thought it would be easy,” she said. “It is not.”

She’s still learning all of the techniques. She explained some of them Wednesday night.

There’s the thumb damp.

Hall picked up her bell and placed the thumb of the hand holding the instrument on the outside of its casting instead of on the handle. Doing that creates a “stop” sound when the clapper strikes the inside of the bell.

She then showed off the martellato lift. She struck the bell on the padded table in front of her and then immediately lifted the bell back up so the sound would continue.

Hall said mastering all of the techniques may not even be the most difficult part, though.

The timing is so critical when you’re not playing all the notes.

“You have the one note you’re waiting for, and you have to get it just right,” she said.

Ison agreed.

In a regular choir, if you miss a note, someone else will just pick it up. In a handbell choir, if you miss a note, it’s just gone, she said.

Harnish said she likes that choir members rely on each other so much. It fosters camaraderie within the group.

“This is real cooperation,” she said. “It’s like a team.”

The team bantered back and forth Wednesday, teasing each other. They’d laugh at the mistakes they made before working to correct them.

Ison loves the group’s dynamic. The women have so much fun together, she said.

“What I enjoy most are these people,” she said, looking around the room. “They’re so excited to be here.”

Ison and Harnish say they hope there are young people who get this excited about handbell choirs. The women say they’re trying to train the next generation of bell ringers.

The current choir members in Howard County are aging quickly, Harnish said.

“Some of us oldies won’t be able to play much longer,” Harnish said, with a laugh.

She has played in all 30 of the county’s handbell festivals, along with about 10 other current choir members in the area.

Seeing the excitement at the Joyful Ringers practice, it’s not hard to understand why some bell ringers stick around so long.

The newbies in the group say they love it. It’s a choir they can be in even if they don’t sing well.

Ison laughed and said it’s true.

“You sing with your bells,” she said.

Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune Life & Style editor, can be reached at 765-454-8585, at lindsey.ziliak@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @LindseyZiliak.

WANT TO GO? WHAT: Area handbell festival featuring choirs from six local churches and the Circle City Ringers from Indianapolis WHEN: 5:30 p.m. March 1 WHERE: Bible Baptist Church on Dixon Road COST: A freewill offering will be accepted to help offset costs of the performance