In church music circles, I believe it a truthful statement to say that most Episcopal parishes do not have active handbell choirs.
In Episcopal circles, it seems that Episcopal musicians fall on one side of the handbell fence or the other, with not much middle ground. If the Anglican way is the via media (“middle way”), then falling on either side of the fence is not the truest Anglican virtue, is it?
Among my Episcopal music director colleagues, I hear all manner of opinions on handbell ringing. “We use handbells only liturgically, as Psalm accompaniments or anthem obbligatos,” or the like.
As an Episcopal parish musician, I admit that including a handbell choir in the liturgy takes some finesse. For example, part of handbell ringing is most certainly visual, but setting up our handbell tables across the front of the nave does not work, as this is precisely where our Communion standing stations are each Sunday morning.
We, therefore, have made it work by setting up our handbells in the chapel aisle, around the corner from the nave lectern. Truth be told, the sound in that aisle is phenomenal, everyone approaching the altar rail can see us, and many parents with children make a point to come to Communion on the lectern side when we play so their children can pause and watch.
I also admit that I choose handbell literature very carefully. While we gave a handbell concert some years ago, upon which I included some secular, fun handbell arrangements, I do not always choose every “Suite from The Lion King” or the like. Our handbell pieces are specifically composed for handbell choirs, or are arrangements of hymns from The Hymnal 1982, or are transcriptions of other classical pieces.
Handbell-ringing is a compliment to any parish music ministry, as it provides a group for non-singer musicians. There are many high school or college trombonists out there who want to participate in a church choir, and the handbell choir is a perfect opportunity.
And handbell-ringing can be just about the most fun choir of all. It is the supreme group effort, as each member must be in place for rehearsals each week or provide a substitute ringer. And handbell choir members would rather be at rehearsal anyway, as missing one rehearsal means you miss the progress of learning your part. Moreover, even the best sub will not ring a position as well as the regular member, with whom the entire ensemble is comfortable.
“If you’re not there, your bells don’t ring.” (Just one of the long litany of handbell sayings.)
The Holy Communion Ringers has been a choir since 2006, and we have made significant progress during the years. Through memorial gifts, our set of handbells has grown, as well as our handbell music library. We attend the local Memphis handbell festival each March and are told that we are one of the most prepared choirs.
Years ago, I remember rehearsals when we would make it through three pages of an eight-page piece, and I would exclaim and affirm, “That was wonderful. Now we’ll push on to the next three pages next week.” These days, we begin rehearsing our March festival pieces after Christmas (not in September) and can read through all five pieces (even the token selected “challenge” piece) in one rehearsal.
Not bad for an Episcopal parish handbell choir.
Many will know that we now have a bona fide handbell clinician, editor and composer as a member of our choir, who has dedicated several new compositions or arrangements to the Holy Communion Ringers, for which we are humbled and grateful.
This Sunday (May 5), we will play one of our festival pieces and a brand-new piece, a handbell arrangement of the Martin Shaw OBE (1875-1958) choral anthem, "With a voice of singing." Shaw was an English composer, conductor, and theater producer who wrote songs, hymns, carols, choral music, instrumental works, and operas.
At the Royal College of Music, Shaw studied under Anglican composer Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), who also taught Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and John Ireland, all British composers.
Doesn’t get much more Anglican than that (he said, humbly).
Come this Sunday morning go hear and celebrate the Holy Communion Ringers as we finish our 2018-19 choir season. And go to the Communion rail on the lectern side.