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The Colonial English Handbell Ringers
Handbells and Christmas are two things that go together like salt & pepper, chips & salsa, milk & cookies and Currier & Ives. For many people, bell ringing is synonymous with the Christmas season, from the Salvation Army volunteers ringing a bell as they stand beside the red kettle to the strains of “Silent Night” as candles are lit during a candlelight service.
There are numerous church and community handbell choirs nationwide that play Christmas concerts in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day. Handbell aficionados who live in the Washington, DC area may have been treated to one of the Christmas performances presented by The Colonial English Handbell Ringers. For those who don’t live near metro DC, allow us to introduce this group to you.
The Colonial English Handbell Ringers are a community group consisting of 11 to 12 ringers. They are a private group not affiliated with any church denomination, which has been active for 26 years. Elie Cossa, David Emanuel and Nena Hiltz are the group directors, with Nena Hiltz taking over the baton as conductor from Mary Ann Parker in 2007 upon her retirement (although she still rings with the group).
The group plays on a 5 octave, “long” set of Whitechapel bells, which is about 80 bells. They practice in Lanham, MD every Sunday evening from mid-September through November – in a member’s basement! The regular “season” for The Colonial Ringers is the month of December, however they do perform, by request, for special events at other times of the year. Sometimes the entire group participates in those special events and sometimes it’s a smaller group called “A Touch of Clash”. In past years, they have also had a group in period garb perform at the Maryland Renaissance Festival.
The Colonial Ringers have performed at The White House, the Annapolis State House, The Lyceum in Alexandria, Gadsby’s Tavern, The Bowie Center for the Performing Arts and a number of local historic properties. Community outreach includes performances at assisted living homes and concerts at small local churches, libraries and other municipal buildings. The concerts aren’t just performances, though; they are educational shows. The members of the group talk about the history of handbells, discuss various techniques and interact throughout the concert with the audience. At the conclusion of the concerts, they invite attendees to come meet, greet and “attach themselves to a ringer” for a hands-on experience.
Some of their favorite pieces are the originals “Away in a Jingle”, “Bell Talk”, and their version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. “Bell Talk” was written by Mary Ann Parker specifically for the group because, in her words, “I got tired of people complaining that they were not busy enough, so I wrote a piece to keep everyone happy.” Of course the group loves it!
This brings us to several features about The Colonial Ringers which are unusual and, quite possibly, unique to this group.
They are an LV choir because they like the bigger, fuller sound that is produced when bells aren’t damped. They also use what we know as the singing bell technique, but they call it the “BillyRub” in honor of Mary’s husband and former member of the group, Bill Brashears, who passed away.
They perform in Colonial dress for the festive, visual experience it provides.
But perhaps the most unique thing is that the ringers play all of their music from chart notation instead of sheet music. Nancy Poore Tufts introduced handbells and charts to the Washington DC area, and some of the early members of this group studied under her and her successors. The group finds the charts bring a different visual experience for the audience – you can better see the techniques used as the table is not being blocked, and the ringers are looking up and outward.
And if they have an opening for a new ringer, one of the main qualifications is a sense of humor. This group likes to have fun. They are always full of quips and puns during rehearsals – it keeps the group smiling and coming back to ring year after year. Sounds like a great way to conduct rehearsals!
To connect with the Colonial English Handbell Ringers, visit their website at http://colonialringers.com/home/ or their Facebook page.