The handbell choir at St. Matthew United Methodist Church in Belleville knows how to make a joyful sound. With a dozen members, the choirs play up to five octaves of bells — that’s 61 — as well as choir chimes.
Called the Wesley Ringers, the group performs monthly at church and also during other special occasions, such as when area church handbell choirs get together each spring for a Ring Praise concert.
“It brings a joyful sound to the service,” said Hank Oplinger, minister of music at St. Matthew. “I think that’s especially true at Christmas and Easter Sunday.”
He noted that bells were mentioned being used in temple worship in the Old Testament, though they weren’t handbells.
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With handbells, your right and left hands have to know what they’re doing because you never play just one — and sometimes not even one at a time. As many as four small bells can be held in one hand and played.
Carrie Crago, 58, is the director of the adult handbell choir at St. Matthew. She has been playing since the mid-1980s and has taught at several other churches in the area.
“The bells remind me of old European churches, when they were used to call people to worship,” she said, adding that there is a “peacefulness to the sound. It’s calming, relaxing, I think.”
The group practices weekly September through May and Carrie said it could handle a few more members who can read music and want to learn.
Before a recent holiday evening service, Crago and her crew set up in the vestibule of the church, unpacked their bronze bells from their individual cases, donned lint-free gloves and rang out holiday tunes.
“That evening we played for ‘Glory of Christmas,’” said Carrie. “We did all carols, things like ‘Winter Wonderland,’ ‘Little Drummer Boy,’ ‘Jingle Bells,’ ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’” and more.
The bells, made by Schulmerich, the world’s oldest and largest maker of handbells in the United States, get special treatment and are hand-polished after every use. When needed, they are tuned by an expert who takes each apart so the clapper can be adjusted to make sure it hits “a certain sweet spot” to get a specific pitch, said Carrie.
Good handbells are expensive, she added. “Our biggest bell is $4,000.”