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Shoreline Ringers: Clear as a bell

By Kristina Dorsey

Publication: The Day

Published 01/03/2013 12:00 AM
Updated 01/02/2013 02:36 PM

Wait! The holiday season isn't over quite yet.

Shoreline Ringers will be giving two more performances of their holiday concert this weekend.

This community handbell choir, which has been around for seven years, will give a Friday night show at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Old Saybrook and then a Sunday matinee at Central Baptist Church in Norwich.

The performances will mostly be carols - including "Toys on Parade," based on "Babes in Toyland"; "O Come, O Come, Emanuel," and "Do You Hear What I Hear?"

The most difficult piece on the program is arguably "The Holly and the Ivy," says Jane Nolan, director of Shoreline Ringers.

"It's fast, and it's very rhythmically difficult. It uses every bell on the table - every bell," she says, meaning all 63 bells. "It's a fun piece. The tune is familiar, but with the rhythmic arrangement, it has a few surprises in it."

Shoreline Ringers consists of 14 ringers, all of whom came into the group with handbell experience. Their day jobs, meanwhile, range widely; the ensemble boasts an Electric Boat engineer, a financial analyst, and a trio of music teachers, among others.

All told, the group uses five octaves of bells and five octaves of hand chimes.

"When we go from place to place, we go with 17 cases of bells and chimes," Nolan says.

Each ringer is assigned to a segment of bells - for example, one person handles the C and D bells and the corresponding sharps and flats. In the past, a person would stay in the same position for a whole season, but Nolan has started switching that up. Now, some of the ringers move.

"That's done for a variety of reasons," Nolan says. "It hones your sightreading skills because every person looks at exactly the same piece of music. ... In a band, when the clarinet player has a piece of music, it's only their part; they don't know what anybody else is doing. With handbells, you see the entire piece before you, and you have to pick your notes off the page."

In addition, shifting people around gives performers the experience of ringing different bells - and it is a different experience, since the weight of the bells and the technique varies.

The bass bells, for instance, weigh 10 pounds. (Nolan jokes, "Our bass bell ringers don't need to go to a gym.") The smaller bells are just ounces.

As for technique quirks: For the little bells, a musician can on occasion have two in one hand at the same time and can ring them individually or together. For the really big bells, a performer can mallet the bell while it sits on the table, creating more of a percussive sound.

When a song involves every bell on the table - as with "The Holly and the Ivy" - and a ringer cannot get to a passage rapidly enough, another ringer plays that bell for them.

"So there's a lot of borrowing and exchanging of bells, with the bells going back in the same place that you got them from," Nolan says.

While the shows this week are holiday themed, the spring concerts that Shoreline Ringers perform bring together jazz, classical and showtunes.

And, yes, the group does take on some unexpected pieces on occasion. They once did a version of Michael Jackson's "Thriller."

Shoreline Ringers, 7 p.m. Friday, St. Paul's Lutheran Church, 56 Great Hammock Road, Old Saybrook, free-willing offering; also, 3 p.m. Sunday, Central Baptist Church, 2 Union Square, Norwich, free; shorelineringers.org.

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