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Handbell choir rings in another year

A Report by Sofia Walker '11

In October 2010, Sofia met with the Helen Hills Hills Chapel's Handbell Choir.

Music is as often as not a solitary endeavor: pianists, guitarists, and drummers can all choose to exercise their art with or without accompaniment. Rare is the instrument that requires 28 hands to be played. Handbells are such an instrument. Smith's handbell choir, which has been flourishing since an alumna's 1984 donation of a set of bells, sees the communal nature of their music both as one of its challenges and one of its greatest rewards.

Teamwork is a defining characteristic of handbell music, says Emily Rider-Longmaid '12, one of the co-presidents of the choir. "To make anything happen, to sound good, you have to work together and be on the same beat." The effort is worth it, though, as the rewards are enormous. "You get this intense, major sound. We're working with 5 octaves."

Perhaps because of the teamwork required, the choir is a very social group, although its makeup "is always changing," according to Emily Wolf '11, the other co-president. The musicians always eat dinner together after their twice-weekly rehearsals. Grant Moss, the musical director of the choir and a member of Smith's music department, chooses the dining hall. "He always decides based on dessert," said one choir member. The atmosphere at rehearsal was friendly, humorous, and unhurried -- a few students trickled in a bit late. "We're casual," said Rider-Longmaid, "but we play great music."

Much of the choir's repertoire comes from the Christian tradition, as the handbells are something of a sacred instrument. Christmas is the busiest time of year for the choir. When I dropped in on rehearsal, they were preparing for an Advent dinner performance, several church performances, and a performance on Main Street in Northampton. "Carol of the Bells" is the signature handbell song.

But although much of the available handbell music is Christian, the choir performs secular favorites too, at Montage and their own event, the Spring Ring. "We've done Broadway tunes, the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean, and songs from The Little Mermaid. We try to do things that the audience will recognize and enjoy," offered Wolf and Rider-Longmaid. No Lady Gaga, though -- handbells need more melody and harmony than most contemporary pop music, which is largely percussion-based, can offer.

Coordinating with 13 other musicians is not the only challenge of playing the handbells. There are several different strokes: the simple ring, the table-plop, thumb-damping, hitting the bell with mallets, plucking, and the tower swing, all producing different echoes or durations of the note. Musicians must wear gloves, to protect both the bell and their hands. A beginning musician is in charge of two notes and four bells. At higher levels one might play eight bells. It all sounds very complicated and hard to perform, but as I listened to their rendition of a Christmas hymn, I saw that Emily Rider-Longmaid had been right when she said, "we do 'Smith College endings' absolutely perfect."