Since earliest times, bells in church towers have been rung to call parishioners to worship and to celebrate or announce services and special events such as weddings and funerals.
As churches built towers with multiple bells, bell ringers began to form choirs who rang increasingly difficult patterns. A practice, which today is called change ringing. practicing, was difficult in cold, drafty towers, and of course noisy! The small number of bells and the strength and stamina required to move the heavy bells limited the performances. Handbells were originally developed to allow the ringers to practice the patterns (which had to be memorized) indoors in relative comfort. Over the years, handbell ringing has developed into an art form of its own.
Handbell choirs ring from two to five octaves. The bells are set up in keyboard order on padded tables. Each person in the choir is usually responsible for two notes and their sharps and flats. Ringers at the upper and lower ends sometimes have additional notes. Ringers wear gloves in order to avoid tarnishing the bells.
Handbells can be rung using a variety of techniques. In order to get a more percussive sound they can be played with mallets or struck on the padded tables using techniques such as plucks and marts. (Mart is short for Martallato, the name given to the technique of gently striking the bell on the table to produce a muted tone.) The American Guild of English Handbell Ringers has developed a notation system for techniques that is unique to handbells.
Bell music is printed in full score fashion (like piano music) and each ringer is responsible for finding and playing his or her notes as they come. A pianist uses all ten fingers to play the keys of a piano. When a bell choir rings, each individual is like one finger, each working together to play the right notes at the right time. Thus, ringing handbells requires coordination and teamwork analogous to an orchestra. When one ringer is absent, that person's notes are missing!
Through fundraising and many gifts, additional bells and hand chimes were gradually added to the original three octaves. Currently, the church owns five octaves of Schulmerich Handbells and 4+ octaves of Malmark hand chimes.
Five octaves of bells translated to 61 bells (A piano has seven octaves and 88 keys) Bells are numbered by octaves. Middle C on the piano translates to C5. The church’s lowest note and largest bell is C3, the highest C8. Each bell is cast, polished and set to ring on a specific spot so that when the clapper strikes the inside of the bell it is in tune. The clapper is on a pivot inside the bell, allowing the ringer to control the timing and loudness of the bell as it is rung.
Many different techniques are used to change the sound of the bells. Bells can be plucked, malleted and struck gently against the table to create a variety of percussive sounds.
Our new Malmark hand chimes look like hollow, tubular tuning forks. The church has four complete octaves with some additional fifth octave base chimes. The clapper is on the outside of the chime. The same bell techniques are used to ring hand chimes. The chimes are much lighter in weight than bells. The sound they produce is mellower than a bell and is reminiscent of a wind chime hanging in the backyard. The church often combines the bells and chimes within a given piece, creating an interesting blend of sounds. Some of the bass chimes sound like an organ pipe and they resonate for longer than the note value of a comparable bell.