August 1978--35 years ago, I picked up handbells for the first time ever.
It was the year in between 8th grade and freshman year of high school. Not exactly the time when you think about taking on new things, other than your course schedule. Graduation had just marked the end of a huge year--first term paper in English; Confirmation class; playing on the school's inaugural girls softball team; algebra; yearbook staff; a pool party with friends. But, a call came in to break up the summer of "life on pause."
The woman who had directed the Junior Choir at our church called to talk with my mom. Bettye Lee had served this choir for years, embracing kids in that challenging "approaching and into middle school age" with a combination of humor, strictness and, always, professionalism--or, as close to that as you get with this age of kid. I was fortunate to have participated in two musical productions under her leadership, not to mention weekly rehearsals and many opportunities singing in church.
Our time together might have been longer had she not followed her husband in taking a work-related leave of absence from the country and moving to England for a time. I still remember on the night of her farewell party begging my mom to take me, and then eating too many fig bars with cream-cheese filling while watching Mrs. Lee open her going-away gifts. Too sad! What I didn't know is that her going to England was a necessary part of this story. For there, she discovered English handbells. Not that they weren't around, but she wrote in a letter to the church that it would be lovely to have these back home.
She did come back home, too. Flash forward several years to the Spring of 1977. The church hosted a handbell concert with a guest choir. [Pretty sure it was The Klokken Ringers, because their director, Betty Garee--lifetime handbell enthusiast, composer and arranger--later hooked up with our Bettye to go to a bell festival together.] Not sure how it happened, but my family attended the concert that afternoon. I remember very little about what the group played, but it was interesting to watch them. Fairly certain I was too shy to approach their table to even look at a bell up-close. It was not long after that concert that the Teen Tintinnabulators became a reality, with Mrs. Lee directing high school students from our church.
When the call came in to my house a year later, it was a little surprising. I had not even started high school, remember. But, Mrs. Lee was in a pickle. About half the Teen Tintinnabulators were heading off to college leaving quite a few openings for new ringers. She was seeking the newest crop of high-schoolers with the thought of training them under her remaining group--most of whom were rising seniors who would head out the door the following year. She was calling her former Junior Choir members, scouting out interest. My mom gave me the scoop. Nervously, I would give it a try. (And, the newspaper came a few rehearsals after that. It was kind of a novelty to have handbells in the county, back in the day.)
The arm motion has always been totally natural for me.
I think 9 years of ballet lessons helped with that.
That first year left indelible marks. I not only learned to play, but learned so much of the behind-the-scenes. With each rehearsal, we were all involved in the regular set-up and clean-up of the bells, and their needed accessories. I had only sung in choruses before, and playing alongside others in a musical group was a completely different experience. With handbells, you handle your own part, but that part must fit seamlessly with everyone else's parts. Rehearsals were intense because musicality and professionalism were mandates. But I learned to appreciate being in a group and found a comfort level with people that I hadn't before experienced.
At the end of the season came my first multi-state handbell festival at the University of Orono in Maine.
At that time, handbell festivals lasted 3 or 4 days and were held in the summer on college campuses. We stayed in the dorms, ate in the cafeterias, and went to morning chapel and bell classes in between massed-ringing rehearsals and ensemble concerts. We performed two pieces at one of the ensemble concert venues--one of which was supposed to be "Variations on Chopstix," which got nixed fairly last-minute by Mrs. Lee in favor of a newer piece released by the festival's main conductor [Donald Allured]. No pressure switching out the fun crowd-pleaser for the more difficult composition in front of the big cheese himself! (Mr. Allured did complement us after our performance and told us to work on our triplets, to which Mrs. Lee responded with something like, "You see? I told you....") I also participated by choice in a music theory/bell composition class. It was out of my league at the time, but I still have the handouts....
I would continue to play through high school, eventually having two of my sisters join the group. My college, which had a music school, didn't have handbells, so there was a gap in playing regularly until life in a new state brought me back into the church--one with a handbell choir. From there, more festivals, solo-playing workshops, conducting and concerts led to a 7-year church choir directorship with more than 100 outreach performances and services--and lifetime friends.
Now, I'm a two-choir gal with the most amazing collection of people playing.
The Prime Chimers of Meadow Glen
The Verena Ringers
Because bells are my instrument, and "measure" 36 is coming up....