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The handbells of St. Andrew’s to ring out Easter morning

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KENT—There will be a joyful noise in St. Andrew’s Church Easter morning when a set of handbells donated to the church some 40 years ago are used for the first time by a choir.

Anne Everett and Bonnie Rosborough wait their turn to sound notes as bell ringers practicing to take part in the Easter morning service at St. Andrew’s Church. Photo by Kathryn Boughton

Music director Susan Guse said that the church got the valuable three-octave set when Harlem Valley Psychiatric Center closed in the late 1980s and the bells were donated to the church. “The center used the bells for music therapy for younger patients. Our priest then was chaplain there and when the center closed, he brought the bells here,” she explained.

The bells were a significant gift and Guse estimates they would cost $15,000 to $20,000 to replace today. But their potential has never been truly explored. In Kent, they have remained safely ensconced in their cases and used only occasionally. 

“They range from the C below middle C, all the way up to the C two octaves above middle C for a total of 37 bells,” she said. “Since I arrived at St Andrew’s, individual bells and small groups of bells have been used to accompany psalm singing and Christmas anthems sung by our choir.”

Now Guse has assembled a small group of volunteers, a couple of whom have previous ringing experience and some with musical backgrounds, to learn arrangements for the Easter service. Seven players, all handling at least two bells, will accompany the choir on Easter morning, the clear tones ringing out and blending with the voices.

During a recent rehearsal, Susan Guse, music director at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, instructed her nascent handbell choir in the chords they will use Easter morning when they accompany the worship service. Photo by Kathryn Boughton

One should not imagine the clanging a school marm’s bell when thinking of them. Manufactured by Schulmerich Company in Pennsylvania, one of only two such firms in the United States, these are true musical instruments that produce lovely tones. The players sound notes by moving their arms smoothly forward in an arc, producing tones that linger—rather like the singing bowls used in Tibetan ceremonies—until the players damp the bells by holding them to their bodies. 

Typically, players handle two bells at a time, but at last Sunday’s rehearsal, with one player absent, Herman Compton was deftly handling three. Compton, a multi-instrumentalist, has played bells since he was a young child in his father’s church. 

The other member of St. Andrew’s new bell choir with previous experience is Bill Watts, who also rang them in his former church.

Guse said American handbells vary from their English cousins in that the clapper moves only one way while English bells move in both directions. English handbells are traditional, with leather clapper heads and handles, while American handbells use modern materials, such as plastic and rubber, to produce the same effect. In both instances, however, the clapper moves only in one direction, unlike school bells, where the clapper swings in all directions.

The bells also have springs that hold the clapper away from the casting after the strike to allow the bell to ring freely. The shaft of the clapper is rigid and hinged, so the bells can be held with their mouths facing upward.

Handheld bells have a long history. Robert and William Cor are credited with developing them in Aldbourne, England, between 1696 and 1724. The Cor brothers originally made brass bells for horse collars but, for reasons unknown, began fitting them with hinged clappers and tuning their bells to have an accurate tone.

“The thing about bells is that you can’t practice them by yourself,” said Guse. “Each bell is only part of an instrument. You can make a joyful noise, but only with others.”

Kathryn Boughton
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