When it comes to handbell choirs, Westminster Choir College (WCC) of Rider University is a world-recognized expert. The first institution anywhere to develop a handbell program, WCC has been both pioneer and leader in the field for more than a generation.
The effort has resulted in the 14 to 16-member Westminster Concert Bell Choir (WCBC), an entity that has the largest tonal range in the world, with a top note matching the highest note on the piano and a low note almost an octave below the lowest piano pitch.
The WCBC — under the direction of Kathleen Ebling Shaw — will demonstrate the chorus’ tonal and musical range with three holiday concerts that include selections spanning the 12th through the 20th centuries.
The first takes place Friday, December 5, at 7:30 p.m. at Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton. The second and third are set for Saturday and Sunday, December 6 and 7, at 4 p.m., at Bristol Chapel on the Westminster campus in Princeton.
The ensemble will also display its know-how in an augmented version of the New Jersey program when it tours nine cities and five states in January. The two-week tour makes stops in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia.
WCBC members are called “ringers” — not be confused with the professional “ringers” who supplement a performing group for a particular concert. They use 97 bells, the weight of which ranges from four ounces to 11 pounds. The group makes up a single instrument, and ringers play only their assigned notes. There are no soloists.
Conductor Shaw provides U.S. 1 with a telephone-tutorial about the unique entity that she directs. In performance, she explains, the bell ringers of WCBC stand behind tables whose length measures about 48 feet — “two rows of 24 feet,” she says. “They are covered with four inches of foam padding and have a firm cover on top. We use black pinwale corduroy. In fact, pinwale corduroy is the standard. The sound depends on the porousness of the material covering the foam. Pinwale provides the firmness that we need.”
“The bells are placed on the table. They are tuned to A 440 Hz [today’s standard pitch]. That means that they can easily play with piano or organ. Mostly, they collaborate with piano, organ, woodwinds, and voices. They can play in any key.”
“Ringers stand at the table with ‘low’ on their left,” Shaw says. That means that someone facing the group sees “low
at the right. The arrangement produces a visual effect opposite to how an observer sees a piano keyboard, where “low” is on the left. “We arrange the bells in keyboard order,” Shaw says. “It’s easier for players that way. They stand as if they were within the instrument.”
“Every piece calls for a different assignment of bells. It could be two, or it could be 12. Playing bells is something like singing in, say, the alto section of choir. But you only get to sing two pitches.”
“What a ringer plays depends on where they’re located in the bell set. The middle section is the core of the piece. Those bells ring more often than the outer pitches. I think of the middle as the cake,” Shaw says. “The high section is the frosting; the low section is the platter. They both support the middle section.”
Shaw continues: “Each player has a copy of the entire score. The notation is the same as for a piano. Ringers follow the score and play only the notes at their assigned pitches.” To the contrary, instrumentalists in a band or orchestra do not have a full score but play from parts that show only the notes that they are expected to use.
Handbells have two components: an outer casing and a moveable clapper that produces a sound by striking the casing and causing it to vibrate. Players generally ring a bell with a motion of their arm and wrist; they stop the sound by touching the vibrating casing to their body below the shoulder.
The bells can produce sonorities other than a ring. Striking the bell into the padded table produces a percussive sound. To produce a plucked sound, the ringer allows the bell to rest on the table and strikes the clapper against the casting. Sometimes a bell resting on the table is struck with a mallet.
The castings are made of bronze. Since the metal is uncoated and shiny, the bells’ surfaces are delicate. “Salt and oil from the players’ skin would tarnish their surfaces,” Shaw says. ‘Ringers wear gloves in order to protect the castings and keep them looking beautiful.”
The WCBC uses bells manufactured by Malmark Bellcraftsmen, based in nearby Pipersville, Pennsylvania. Shaw delights in the quality of their sound and in the purity of their overtones. “The brand we use includes a fundamental, and a pitch an octave and a half higher,” she says. “The bells are very in tune with themselves.”
Shaw, who is in her 21st year as director of handbell activities, is proud of Westminster’s leadership in the handbell world. “We were the first college to create a curriculum for handbells. This is the 37th year of the program. We have a strong reputation, and we maintain it. Westminster has the largest range of pitch [for a handbell choir], and an admired level of skill. We’ve been innovators over a long period of time, and we encourage innovation so we can raise the level of artistry on this instrument.” By “instrument” Shaw means a set of handbells.
The handbell component is part of Westminster’s sacred music program. As a member of the sacred music department, Shaw teaches classes in handbell training and directs two extra-curricular handbell choirs, a training choir, and an auditioned performing group. Some, but not all, Westminster students arrive with handbell experience.
Members of the auditioned performance group must re-audition every September. “They re-audition yearly,” Shaw says. “There are no slackers.” After 20 years of experience with Westminster’s handbell choirs, Shaw says, “This particular choir is one of the most hardworking.”
Asked to enumerate the joys and difficulties of participating in a handbell choir, Shaw expands immediately on the pleasures. “Playing handbells is a team activity. You have to work with neighboring ringers to create musical nuances. There is a closeness that I have not noticed in other groups. The ringers rely on each other.”
The difficulties, by comparison, are merely technicalities. Shaw points out that playing handbells is both a musical and physical activity. “The greatest difficulties are the weight and size of the bell, the challenges of musical passages, the need for eye-hand coordination, and the importance of switching bells quickly in passages where notes with neighboring pitches are called for.”
The repertoire for a handbell choir is growing. “Original works have developed the repertoire,” Shaw says. “Our choir plays a lot of original works and transcriptions.” New works have been written by composers who have attended Westminster.
Arrangements are also used. “Most handbell choirs are church-based,” Shaw says, “and for them, arrangements are common, especially for hymns.” Church-based handbell choirs tend to have 11 members and only a standard range of 37 bells covering three octaves.
Shaw was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1963 and grew up there. Her mother was a nurse at a nearby hospital, her father worked in the physical plant division at the hospital. She sang and rang bells in her church as a child. She is a Westminster Choir College graduate with a concentration in voice. In addition to directing the WCBC, she is also director of music at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
A well-recognized handbell clinician, Shaw has appeared at local, national, and international sessions. Her international engagements have taken her to England, Japan, Korea, and Australia. She is the recipient of a Westminster Alumni Merit Award for her dedication to the art of handbell ringing and her enthusiasm and accomplishments in the classroom as well as the concert hall.
The WCBC has also traveled, joining Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Charlotte Church, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for a 15-city “A Royal Christmas” tour as well as performing twice at Carnegie Hall. They have also created nine solo CD collections.
Though Shaw is happy with the noted accomplishments, she is also deeply impressed by the student musicians who participate solely out of their devotion to music and says at the end of the discussion, “Our current ringers are dedicated to the rich tradition and level of excellence in handbell ringing at Westminster, and they have dedicated themselves to continually raise the musical level of our art form.”
Westminster Concert Bell Choir, An English Christmas, Grounds For Sculpture, East Gallery, 18 Fair Grounds Road, Hamilton. Friday, December 5, 7:30 p.m., $15-$20. 609-586-0616.
And at Bristol Chapel, Westminster Choir College, 101 Lane, Princeton, Saturday and Sunday, December 6 and 7, 4 p.m. $25 adults; $20 students/seniors. 609 921-2663 or www.rider.edu/wcc/events/westminster-concert-bell-choir-english-christmas.