GREENFIELD — Charlott Chandler hadn’t performed music in years, not since her days as a fifth-grader playing recorder, when she joined a handbell choir at church.
On Sunday, she and other members of the group performed during worship at Bradley United Methodist Church. Their Christmas medley wound from “Silent Night” to “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”
The group is one of several such musical ensembles in Hancock County. The bell players, or “ringers,” perform throughout the year but add a particularly festive touch to services this time of year.
The connection is clear to Chandler, who often goes to the annual Circle of Lights lighting on Monument Circle in Indianapolis and hears the bells of Christ Church Cathedral pealing.
Story continues below gallery
“There are a lot of associations” between Christmas and bells, she said.
Fellow Bradley ringer Jean Willis agrees.
“You associate Christmas with shopping malls, and you hear the bells ringing for The Salvation Army,” she said.
Brock Wedgworth, who directs a bell choir at Fortville United Methodist Church, also said he sees the connection — from seasonal songs such as “Jingle Bells,” “Silver Bells” and others, to bells on trees as ornaments.
The ringers at Fortville sometimes perform with handbells and, like the group at Bradley, sometimes perform with handchimes. (The Christmas medley at Bradley on Sunday marked a debut of that group’s chimes.) The chimes are “like a glorified tuning fork,” Wedgworth said, with an opening at the top and a clapper that strikes the outside to make both “tines” ring. He said while some composers have written music specifically for one instrument or the other, it’s possible to use them interchangeably.
Wedgworth has played handbells since he was 14. His grandmother, the late Juanita Arnold, started the handbell choir at Fortville United Methodist Church in 1985. In 2004, Wedgworth followed in her footsteps as director.
He said he would like to enlarge the group and said a musical background is helpful but not required to join a handbell choir; in a few rehearsals, it’s possible to pick up on what to do and how to follow the music. He said focus and the realization of the music being a team effort also make a great ringer.
Handbells vary in size and weight. Each bell represents a musical note, with the smaller bells producing the higher notes. A ringer is typically responsible for two or three bells. Ringers often stand, elbows bent, with bells resting against their upper chest until it’s time for one of their notes in the song. Then he or she unbends an elbow to let the bell ring and resound.
In a more staccato piece, the bells might remain on the tablecloth to be struck with mallets. Ringers use different techniques to change how long the note sounds and what musical effect it delivers.
“For the best tone, you want to keep your bell in motion,” said Dave Willis, who plays in the Bradley handbell choir with Chandler and with Jean Willis, his wife of 63 years. The Willises once lived in Florida and were part of a large bell choir there that covered five octaves’ worth of notes.
With each note assigned to a single person, it’s crucial for every ringer in a bell choir to show up.
Susan Oxley, who directs handbell choirs at Cross of Grace Lutheran Church in New Palestine, said commitment is one of the most important qualities in a ringer.
“If one person is missing, no one is ringing their bells, and there’s a hole,” she said.
Still, she said she realizes some people are traveling during Christmas. So if Cross of Grace’s bell choirs, the Bells of Grace and the Alleluia Ringers, are short of people for Christmas Eve, she’ll recruit former ringers home from college to fill in.
The bell choirs also will play Sunday in the church’s 11th annual Ring and Share, when Cross of Grace invites other area bell choirs to come and play their Christmas music for each other. It’s a casual concert, Oxley said, with four churches and six or seven bell choirs. This year’s event includes Zion Lutheran School, Servants of Christ Lutheran Church in the Oaklandon area, and Resurrection Lutheran Church in Greenwood.
Fortville United Methodist Church’s bell choir also will play Sunday, not only in worship but also at its own event. A fundraising concert at the Bluebird in Morristown will raise money to have the bells serviced, which Wedgeworth said needs to happen every five or six years.
It’s another road concert for the group, which performed Nov. 29 at the Indianapolis Zoo and has in years past helped kick off The Salvation Army bell ringing in Hancock County.
Wedgworth said the group’s repertoire includes traditional Christmas hymns and also light-hearted selections such as “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” It’s not so out of character for this ensemble, its director said; it’s a social, fun-loving bunch. The group has its traditions; a ringer brings cookies for the group to enjoy after practices, and the group usually has Altoids before a performance.
“We like to have fun,” he said. “We always kid.”
Here are some chances to hear handbell music locally during the Christmas season.
Fortville Christian Church, 9450 N. County Road 200W, where the church’s bell choir will perform during services at 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Sunday.
Fortville United Methodist Church, 125 E. Staat St., where the church’s bell choir will perform during worship at 10 a.m. Sunday. Also, handbell duet will perform during the 9 p.m. Christmas Eve service along with, schedules permitting, the full handbell choir. The group typically plays for services on the second Sunday of the month, October through May.
Cross of Grace Lutheran Church, 3519 S. County Road 600W, where the church’s bell choirs will play host to the 11th annual Christmas Ring and Share concert at 2 p.m. Sunday. Guest choirs also performing are from Zion Lutheran School in New Palestine, Resurrection Lutheran in Greenwood, and Servants of Christ Lutheran in Oaklandon.
Bluebird Restaurant, 158 E. Main St., Morristown, where Fortville United Methodist Church’s bell choir will play a fundraising concert Sunday to raise money for servicing the bells. A buffet at 5 p.m. features fried chicken, sides, rolls, dessert and a drink. The concert begins at 7. Tickets are $20 and available at the door.