Ringing of the bells

Sunday, December 20, 2009
Justin Cain plays bass handbells during a rehearsal of the Grace Notes handbell choir at Grace United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. (Fred Lynch)

Today all the work of the handbell choir at Grace United Methodist Church pays off.

The handbell choir, directed by Ray Haring, has been practicing for its presentation of "The Bells of Christmas" a free program of sacred and secular Christmas music at 7 p.m. today at the church. The choir has performed for church services and special events for more than 34 years.

The choir practices for an hour a week each week during the year for its regular Sunday performances, and the practices double when there is a special performance. The choir performs a special concert every 18 months, either at Christmas or in the spring. After this concert, the next performance will be in the spring of 2011.

"I am on the mailing list of several music publishers, and that's how I get ideas for our performances," Haring said. "In addition, we attend a five-state festival every other year to get ideas for new pieces."

The handbell choir has 14 members who attend practice each week and attend the state festival. A beginners choir also practices but doesn't perform.

"Handbell players learn to play the bells in the beginning bell choir at the church," Haring said. "From there, they progress to the performance choir."

Haring said it normally takes several months for performers to learn the technique of holding the bells in their hands. How they hold them depends on the size of the bell and the music. Some players hold two bells in each hand during a performance and ring them individually be either rolling or waving their hand. The bells range in size from a two-inch-tall bell to the largest bell, which weighs 13 pounds.

"Obviously the person with the 13-pound bell must use both hands to ring that bell," Haring said.

As in other years, the 2009 concert will include a special guest accompanist. This year Liesl Schoenberger, a professional violinist and native of Cape Girardeau, will join the choir.

"This is the first time we've had someone as famous as Liesl play with our choir, and we're really looking forward to it," Haring said.

Schoenberger has played violin at Carnegie Hall in New York, the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and concerts overseas. Haring and his wife, Joan, knew Schoenberger when she lived in Cape Girardeau. Haring knew she would be in town for the holidays and asked if she would play with the handbell choir.

This year's concert will include a performance by the church's "4 X 4 Choir," which is made up of children who range from 4-year-olds to fourth-graders. They play color-coded bells and learn how to play chords along with an accompanying CD. They watch the director, who holds up colored cards to indicate which chords should be played.

"Everyone loves to watch the children play," Haring said. "They really get into shaking those bells, sometimes with their entire bodies."

Haring has been the director for the more than a decade.

"I volunteered when the last director had to quit," he said. "It was supposed to be temporary. That has lasted for 14 years."

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