Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Hark How the Bells

by Stephanie Black

Our ward Christmas choir is tiny this year. Usually Christmas music brings an infusion of people into the choir, many of whom disappear come January, but this year the infusion never happened. As things stand, we’re pretty much a quartet with delusions of grandeur: one tenor, one alto (me), two sopranos (plus the choir director’s eleven-year-old daughter), two basses. But with a little angelic help, all will be well. For the congregation’s sake, we hope so.

It’s been a musical Christmas season. Rehearsals started in late October, and the day of rest has become more of a day when I barely have time to catch my breath. In addition to regular choir practice, church w/Sunbeams, and ferrying my daughters to the Stake Youth Choir practice, I’m playing in a handbell choir. A sister in our stake owns a set of handbells and every year for Christmas the two wards that share our building combine to form a handbell choir to play for the Christmas programs. I love listening to the handbell choir—the bells ring with such a gorgeous, clear, silvery sound—plus it’s just unbelievably cool to watch all these people lined up in the front of the chapel ringing bells at exactly the right time and in the right order to create the music to “Silent Night” or “O Come All Ye Faithful.” I’ve never played handbells before, and this year when the sister organizing the choir asked me if I’d like to join them, I was thrilled.

First thing I leaned about handbells: you always wear gloves when you handle them, since the oil from your hands can damage the brass bells. I had no idea—I thought bell choir members just wore gloves for the style factor. Also, you don’t just jingle the bell like you’re auditioning for the one horse open sleigh—you ring them with a smooth, circular motion, the bell held nearly vertical. After you ring a note for the proper number of counts, you have to damp the bell by pressing it against your shoulder so the sound doesn’t keep on ringing, interfering with the harmony.

And then there’s the Big Two: 1-Count 2-Make sure to pick up the right bell.

When I play in the first violin section of our community orchestra, I’m surrounded by another bunch of violinists playing the same music. If I miss an entrance, I might look dorky if anyone is watching me, but there’s plenty of noise to cover up my lapse. If I lose count, I can watch the concertmaster’s bow and see when she starts playing, and voila, it must be time. If I really get scrambled, I can air-bow until I catch up to what’s happening (and then there are those high, fast notes that I just plan to air-bow--hey, with the brass blaring, no one will notice anyway).

Handbells don’t have nearly as much room for error. As our conductor explained it, we’re each a soloist. I’ve got the high B, B flat and C bells, plus two C sharp bells for our final number. No one else is playing those notes. If I miss ringing, those notes are gone. But better to miss a note than to ring the wrong bell. Nothing shrivels people’s earwax like picking up the B flat bell when you really want the B and letting that sour note ring high and clear. Ouch. I mark a lot of reminders in my music about which bells to start with, when to set one bell down and pick up another, and so on.

Our conductor is great—he pushes us and encourages us and demands the best. Of course, there was that one week when he was conducting with a knife . . . okay, it was Fast Sunday, he'd had a busy day at church and bell choir practice starts at six, so dinner for him was a plate his wife brought him at the church. But however legitimate the reason for his having a steel blade in hand, it was still a little different to have him banging out the rhythm of “The First Noel” with the handle of a knife. Kind of made you wonder what would happen if you picked up that B flat bell by mistake . . .


At 12/14/2006 5:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Loved that last image. Butter knife or steak knife? And please tell me there were no bits of food clinging to it! Was he taking bites between songs?

At 12/14/2006 6:14 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Steak knife. Clean. And no, he wasn't eating during the rehearsal. But it was pretty funny.


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