Ring in the Rockies
KEYSTONE – The deep, rich sound of church bells echoing high in a steeple lull most religious people into a tranquil stillness. But for Linda Patten, the sound of bells – especially on Christmas Eve – made her furious.
The ringing on Christmas Eve meant no family buffet full of turkey and all of the trimmings. It meant spending lonely hours at home while her new husband stayed out for most of the night.
Patten married a devoted handbell ringer, who spends Christmas Eves at church ringing handbells in unison with other players.
“Our first Christmas together he was at rehearsals all Christmas Eve,” Patten said. “I got mad, and thought, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
So she joined the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers, a group dedicated to advancing the art of handbell ringing.
Bell ringing began in churches in the Middle Ages, and by the 17th century, bells mounted on wheels allowed ringers to synchronize the sound. Ringers invented small, quiet handbells to rehearse their patterns to avoid driving the village crazy by practicing with booming cathedral bells.
Handbells came to the United States with the circus; P.T. Barnum hired a group of English ringers and dressed them in traditional Swiss costumes, thinking they’d be more appealing. From the circus, ringing spread into vaudeville and, eventually, to cathedrals.
After the American Revolution, interest in handbells waned, but in 1954, Margaret Shurcliff of Boston, Mass., organized the first handbell festival. Ringing regained popularity in churches in the 1970s and ’80s, leading to festivals nationwide.
Each handbell corresponds to a note on the piano keyboard, including sharps and flats. Most choirs have a three- or five-octave set of bells, which range in cost from $8,000 to $22,000. The smallest bell (and highest note) fits in the palm of a hand and weighs a few ounces, while the largest commercially available bell weighs 18 pounds and has a 15-inch diameter.
Fort Collins resident Randy Richards owns the largest bell in the Rocky Mountain region. After ringing for 14 years, he invested $4,000 in the bell.
“Someone in the area needed it for festivals,” Richards said. “It’s the lowest note out there, and it adds a foundation you can’t get any other way. And, it’s a good conversation piece.”
Most ringers start in church choirs and can join one of the seven Colorado community choirs, which tend to perform the most complicated pieces. Many enjoy the teamwork, which is essential in ringing, because if one person’s missing, the six to eight notes they usually play also are absent.
About eight basic ringing techniques draw the sound out of bells, including hitting the bells on a table, striking them with mallets, shaking them and dipping them in water to lower the pitch.
Players wore gloves in the ’70s and ’80s because they mistakenly thought the oils on their hands affected the timber of the bells. Now they wear the gloves to protect their hands from blisters caused by the friction of lifting 5-10 pound bells during an hour-long concert.
Keystone will host the Colorado State Handbell Festival this weekend, and about 350 ringers will attend workshops and mass rehearsals. They will perform a free Ring in the Rockies handbell concert at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Colorado Rockies Ballroom, in the Keystone Conference Center.
Kimberly Nicoletti can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 245 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Ring in the Rockies
– What: Handbell concert
– When: 3 p.m. Sunday, April 27
– Where: Colorado Rockies Ballroom, Keystone Conference Center
– The Colorado Brass Company will join about 350 handbell ringers in a free concert featuring “The Star Spangled Banner,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Nocturne No. 2” and a few
religious and original pieces.
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