Less than a year ago Hyosang Park, organist and handbell director at Princeton’s United Methodist Church, heard about riverblindness (onchocerciasis), one of the world’s leading causes of blindness. The disease is transmitted by parasites deposited in the human body through bites from black flies. About 99 percent of cases occur in Africa. Almost 20 million people suffer from the disease.

“I was surprised to learn that there is such a disease,” says Park in a telephone interview, “and surprised to learn that it can be cured. People with the disease think it is a curse, not a curable disease. Medication is free but it does not necessarily get to people who need it.”

Park decided to combat the disease in her own way. With a master’s degree from Westminster Choir College of Rider University, she has assimilated the Westminster ideal of public service. She has also mastered making music with handbells, a specialty in which Westminster is a world leader. The college’s mission statement calls service through music “ennobling, liberating, and integral to a rewarding and productive life.”

The bells can be played either as a solo instrument or as an ensemble. The Westminster bell choir, using the largest range of handbells in the world, has a compass that reaches from four octaves below middle C to four octaves above middle C, a range almost an octave more than a grand piano.

To raise awareness of and funds for treating riverblindness, Park decided on a handbell recital. The event takes place on Saturday, May 15, in the Princeton United Methodist Church (PUMC), on the corner of Nassau and Vandeventer streets. Joining Park in the performance are pianist Akiko Hosaki and bell ringers Laura Sweat of Princeton and Bill Gardner of West Windsor, members of the bell choir at PUMC, whose range is not quite as large as that of the WCC bell choir.

“We’ll be playing light classical music and hymns at the concert,” Park says. “I love to play hymn tunes; they’re close to my heart. I’ll play solo pieces with Akiko at the piano and will do duets and trios with Laura and Bill.

“There is a special problem with handbell music since much of it is arranged,” says Park. “That sometimes makes it difficult to convey the intention of the composer. If the arrangement is not good, I go back to the original and make changes.”

At the concert an offering for PUMC’s 2010 mission trip to the Congo will be taken. Of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s 60 million inhabitants, 23 million are at risk for contracting river blindness. Merck & Co. provides free medication against the disease. The challenge is to get the drug to remote villages and to ensure that the entire population takes the drug once a year for at least 10 years.

Members of the PUMC congregation can hear Park’s handbell choir regularly. The ensemble plays during the service on the third Sunday of the month. For the rest of us, Park offers an informative overview of the world of handbells. “In a handbell choir, each person normally plays two notes,” she says. “There are 13 ringers in the church’s handbell choir. A conductor is very important. If four or more people are playing, I can’t see how it can happen without a director.”

For a solo handbell performance, the bells are laid out on a table. Standing behind the table, the soloist picks up the bells and puts them down after ringing them. “Sometimes a soloist holds two or three bells in one hand,” Park says. “In one solo piece at the May 15 concert I’ll have three bells in each hand at once. The largest bell that I’ll use is six or seven inches in diameter and plays an octave below middle C.

“A handbell performance is very visual,” Park says. “At a piano or violin concerto you can’t see what makes the sound. Bell ringing is different. Often, people who see me playing say they feel that I’m dancing.”

A YouTube video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXAUvkH2QJ8, captures Park’s grace as a performer. I have questions about the video and Park answers them by E-mail:

U.S. 1: You seem to be wearing gloves. Anything special about them?

Park: Handbell ringers will often wear gloves to protect the castings of the bells; with some techniques, the ringers have to hold the bell itself, not the handle. The gloves that I’m wearing have a double padding between thumbs and index fingers, and between index fingers and middle fingers to protect the ringer’s hands and fingers.

U.S. 1: You seem to put down the bells in a place other than where they were originally. How do you keep track of where they are?

Park: I arrange the bells in a keyboard order. But sometimes, depending on how the music is written, I have to take them out of the keyboard order. In that case, I simply have to keep track of the bells at all times.

U.S. 1: When you hold two or three bells in one hand, you seem to sound only one at a time.

Park: There are two different ringing techniques. One is a position which allows a ringer to play more than one bell at the same time. The other allows a ringer to choose between playing one bell at a time or more than one.

U.S. 1: How do you and your pianist stay together. Eye contact? Understanding of the music?”

Park: I have to say both, and also breathing. You might have heard me breathing during the clip. Akiko is a very sensitive pianist who is able to tell a tempo change or a dynamic change from my breathing. She also breathes for me, so I can tell her changes in tempo and other things during her interludes. That’s why I am very fortunate to have her as a pianist. I know that she will be with me at all times.”

Park was born in Seoul, Korea, in 1972, to a pastor father and a stay-at-home mother. She started piano at eight, “mainly to play at my father’s church,” she says. “There was no doubt that I would play piano. Going for church music was natural to me. I wanted to serve in church as a church musician. My church in Korea had handbells.”

After graduating from college in Korea as a church music major, Park came to the United States to study at Westminster, where she joined its distinguished bell choir, directed by Kathy Ebling-Thorne. “The piano training helped me understand how a handbell choir piece is put together. As a piano player I know what’s happening above and below my part, and I can grasp the entire composition.

“What I learned from the bell choir at Westminster helped me to be a better solo bell player,” she says. “Playing solo handbells is tricky. I want to make the line sing beautifully but I don’t want to sacrifice the tempo. I don’t want to go too fast or too slow. It’s hard to find a happy medium where you do not lose musical quality. Sometimes I check the tempo with a metronome.”

Putting down roots in the United States, Park earned a double master’s degree in sacred music and piano performance from Westminster. About the transition from Korea, Park says, “Nothing was easy. In Korea we learn to read English, but not to speak. Speaking and understanding are very hard. I’m still trying to learn. The culture and the food are different. In Korea I was living with my parents. In the United States I had to get my own phone line for the first time and had to have my electricity connected. It was especially complicated because of the language problem.

“My identity won’t change,” Park says. “I’m obviously Korean.” Yet, she no longer feels completely at home in Korea. “If I go back to Korea, I would have trouble adjusting,” she says. Park says she now dreams in English, rather than in Korean.

In addition to her work at the Methodist Church Park teaches general music and handbell music at St. Jerome Catholic School in West Long Branch. She is a staff accompanist at Westminster and maintains a private piano studio.

Park and pianist Hosaki have known each other for at least 10 years. “When I decided that I wanted to reach out to people with riverblindness, I first talked to Akiko,” Park says. “I knew that if I did a performance with her, we could make beautiful music. Then I proposed it to the church, and people there welcomed the idea.”

Ring Out for Riverblindness, Princeton United Methodist Church, 7 Vandeventer Avenue, Princeton. Saturday, May 15, 7 p.m. Solo handbell artist Hyosang Park and pianist Akiko Hosaki in concert to benefit the church’s mission trip to the Congo in support of the United Front Against Riverblindness program. Free-will offering. 609-924-2613 or www.princetonumc.org.

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