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From Closet to Concert: The Richton Ringers
The Richton Ringers is a church based- community handbell ensemble in Richton, MS. The "Real Southern Belles" made up of eleven women, play 4 octaves of Schulmerich handbells and 3 octaves of handchimes. They perform about 15 concerts a year in Richton and in the greater region of Southern Mississippi and Alabama. Repertoire consists of level 3-5 literature, both sacred and secular. In the Summer of 2011, they will be touring Southern California. Just two years ago, however, this group did not exist. Here is how it all came to be...
The United Methodist Church of Richton, MS had owned a 3-octave set of bells for many years. This small church in a small town had frequent changes of music leadership. The directors were part-time and were often graduate students in the choral music program from the nearby University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, sometimes with limited interest or time to direct the bell choir. The use of the bells was therefore sporadic at best. Bell choir membership wasn't consistent enough to play anything beyond level 1-2 literature. Across the street at The First Baptist Church of Richton, a two-octave bell choir was also experiencing somewhat similar struggles when their director left at the end of 2008.
In the fall of 2008, John Howard, a doctoral student in choral conducting at USM, came to work as part-time music director at the Methodist church. Right around the same time another student from USM was appointed to the position of music director at the First Baptist Church of Richton. The two directors decided to put their heads together and collaborate by merging the two handbell choirs together in order to form one ensemble, which would allow for more ringers. John Howard would be the conductor. By the end of January 2009, the first rehearsals began. The group of 11 women started only on technique exercises from Michael Keller's "Developing Coordination Skills for Handbells." They gradually added level 1-2 repertoire to the exercises. The group did not plan to play for church services until they were really solid. This was the key to success. There wasn't pressure from the "tyranny of the urgent," which most church handbell choirs face in preparing a piece each month or more in order to play frequently at church. The choir rehearsed until the end of May 2009 before their debut performance, in which the ensemble presented a concert at the Methodist church (to which both church congregations were invited.) The response was tremendous. The technique and musicianship from the ensemble was solid, and they performed with superior quality (even though the pieces were not very difficult.) Each Fall and Spring since then, they have worked towards a concert program, adding increasingly challenging literature, and rehearsing for months with the goal of excellence.
Since the newly discovered "Richton Ringers" was gaining so much acclaim, they started receiving requests to perform at other venues in the area. Soon a full schedule of performances was developed for local/regional churches, schools, and other organizations. Along with musical growth came fundraising, concert outfits, traveling T-shirts, fundraising, photo shoots, local newspaper stories, fundraising, the addition of the fourth octave of handbells and the third octave of handchimes, still more fundraising, and the release of a professional demo CD for use in booking more concerts. (Did I mention all the fundraising?) The newest chapter for the Richton Ringers is the "California Here We Come Concert Tour," scheduled for Summer 2011.
The choir gets along like a big happy family and has a blast wherever they go. Hundreds of people have said how moved they have been by the beautiful ministry of music offered by the Richton Ringers. All this has been possible because two churches put aside their differences and the need to promote their own programs to do something greater than each could ever have accomplished on their own. Think outside the four walls of your church, school, or organization, and allow a world of possibility to pour in.