Rounding up the ringers: Local church bell choirs practice year-round

Monday, December 6, 2010
Caroline Thornburgh, left, and Kathy Haas perform with the hand bell choir at New McKendree United Methodist Church in Jackson Sunday, November 21, 2010. (Laura Simon)

Have you "heard the bells on Christmas Day?" Handbell choirs are a long-cherished holiday tradition, but local churches practice and perform year-round.

"We've got members who have been playing for a long, long time in the same choir," says Crystal Burress, who directs the 12-member bell choir at New McKendree United Methodist Church in Jackson. The Love Handbell Choir -- named for the Rev. and Mrs. Francis Love, who donated the first bells to the choir -- practices weekly and performs monthly during church services from September through May. They also perform at the church's annual Christmas program.

"I like to challenge my choir, but I think it makes it more fun for them in the end because they feel a sense of accomplishment when it's all put together," says Burress. No experience or auditions are required to join the handbell choir, says Burress -- all it takes is an interest in music.

"It helps if they can read music. Some members don't really read music, but it's very basic. We can teach them how to find their notes," says Burress. "If they can count, we can find spot for them in the choir."

Grace United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau has two bell choirs: a starter choir called Bells of Grace, and an advanced choir, called Grace Notes.

"It takes a lot of commitment," says Ray Haring, who has played in the bell choir since it started 40 years ago and has been director for the past 15 years. "If you're in a singing choir and a soprano is missing, it's not really a big deal. In bells, each person is responsible for four notes, so that's a big whole. You have to be really committed to be there at every practice."

Grace's bell choirs work with a full five-octave set -- that's eight bells per octave, plus sharps and flats, for a grand total of 70 bells. The choirs practice weekly and perform during church services throughout the year. Haring also organizes a public concert every year, alternating between a Christmas concert and spring concert. Last year's Christmas concert attracted an audience of about 400, and Haring expects a crowd of the same size or bigger this May, when Grace Notes will perform a Disney-themed show.

"People who come from churches that don't have bell choirs like the opportunity to see this and hear this, so that adds another dimension to church music and/or music in general," says Haring. In fact, he wishes the choirs could travel to more performances, as they have in the past -- but it's a rather arduous task.

"It gets to be real exhausting to move all that," says Haring. "We have bells, tables, pads and table covers that we have to set up and tear down. We've restricted ourselves so we don't go out as much as used to, but we publicize our concerts so the community has the opportunity to attend."

See New McKendree's handbell choir at 6 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 12, at the church's Highway 25 South campus.

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