To many, the thought of seeing a handbell choir might induce a yawn and a flimsy excuse. Of the instruments out there, there are so many — the bassoon or viola for example — that are more exciting than the lowly handbell.
But, in the hands of the Raleigh Ringers, handbell playing has been taken to a new level. They are no average church handbell choir, they are virtuosi who have mastered this most humble instrument and they are bringing their renowned playing to LaGrange.
The group, from Raleigh, N.C., consists of 17 ringers who use more than 360 different bells and bell-related instruments in their concerts.
The ensemble performs a range of music from classical to popular music. One of their signature pieces, an arrangement of Rimsky-Korskov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” is masterfully played but also incorporates a sense of humor. Players don bumblebee-striped gloves and make use of fly swatters during their performance.
The group was founded 23 years ago by conductor David M. Harris. After directing the handbell choir at a local church, Harris wanted a group with a more expansive repertoire and a performing season. Over the last two decades the group has gained recognition as one of the finest handbell choirs in the world.
Bells have been in use for millennia. In the western world they have usually marked the sacred, ringing out from church steeples to indicate time or in peals to mark special events. Handbells were used more as a signal rather than an instrument, perhaps being rung by a town crier or to say that a meal is being served.
The handbell as an instrument dates only to the early 18th century and were only introduced to America just after the turn of the 20th century. Over time, they’ve become popular in churches, though they are rarely seen in secular settings.
While playing a handbell is easy — bells are usually held to the chest and is swung outwards to produce a tone then dampened on the chest — the real challenges in handbell playing come from playing a series of fast running notes or playing multiple bells at once.
There are also a number of ways that the bells can be played, thus producing different tones. Bells can be played with mallets or struck on a foam covered tables with both effects rendering a staccato note. Or perhaps a tone may be sustained by striking a hanging bell.
The Raleigh Ringers make use of all of these techniques plus they use a variety of different types of handbells that adds variety to their sound.
North Carolina music critic John Lambert said in one of his reviews, “the virtuosity and musicianship of The Raleigh Ringers is exceptional by any standard.”