The Beatles’ “Help!” isn’t the first song you’d expect a bell choir to play, nor is a medley from “Star Wars.” But Long Island reSound is broadening the repertoire of handbell music.
The community handbell group is moving past the sacred music often associated with handbells — such as Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and favorite Christmas carols such as “Joy to the World” — and taking on Hollywood scores and pop songs from the Beach Boys and perhaps one day Adele.
Founder Jennifer Murray, who lives in Mastic and has been a bell ringer for 27 years, said she is eager to do more popular music and said she hopes to soon have time to arrange songs for the group.
“I hear songs as though there were bells playing the parts,” Murray, 35, said with a laugh. “I hear them in my head as I’m listening.”
Murray said people are arranging more popular songs for bell choirs, such as Adele’s “Rolling In the Deep,” but it’s a process that takes some time to make the sheet music available. “But, the handbell world is getting pretty hip,” she said.
Murray had been ringing with a beginners choir at a Mastic church but wanted to work with a more advanced group. She started Long Island reSound in 2014 after attending a 2013 workshop in Raleigh, North Carolina, that was sponsored by the Raleigh Ringers, an advanced handbell choir.
“I knew I had to do something when I got home,” she said. “I couldn’t not ring.”
Tuned handbells, percussion instruments, are played by ringing them so the fixed clapper inside the bell strikes the side. Handbells have been around since ancient times in China, and became popular in England in the 1600s. They made it to America in the mid-1800s, according to a history of handbells by the Lancaster Handbell Ensemble.
To get the classic ringing tone, players usually hold the bell aloft by its leather or plastic handle and ring it with a straight up and down motion, shake it, strike it with mallets or pluck the clapper. To damp the sound, a player holds the bell against the body, touches a thumb to it or holds the bell to a shoulder when it’s time for the note to stop ringing. Handbells range from small treble clef bells to the larger bass clef bells and are most often made of bronze; they come in tuned sets. Most concert bell choirs use a three-octave set of 36 bells or a five-octave set of 61 bells. Murray hopes reSound will eventually grow large enough to become a seven-octave handbell ensemble with 85 bells.
Jennifer Cauhorn, executive director of the Cincinnati-based Handbell Musicians of America, said the organization represents about 100,000 handbell musicians through its membership of directors, arrangers, publishers and retailers. She estimates that’s probably about half the 200,000 bellringers in the country, since many ringers are affiliated with church choirs and use their denominational support resources. A fair number of local churches have handbell choirs, but there aren’t many community handbell groups in New York State, something Murray said she would like to help change.
Carol Ng, 58, of Merrick, heads the Merrick Ringers. The group — which numbers 10 but is not seeking new members — practices at her home and performs occasionally at the East Meadow Public Library. It also performs during services at Sacred Heart Church in North Merrick and at the annual Merrick Brotherhood Concert at Calhoun High School, which this year is Nov. 20, and at some services at Cure de Ars Church in Merrick.
Murray got permission to use the handbells at her former church, along with music and rehearsal space, then recruited five ringers and started practicing in September 2014. The initial group grew to seven ringers, and they borrowed three ringers from another group to hold their first concert that December.
Long Island reSound now has 12 members and they practice weekly, using the loaned bells and space at the First Presbyterian Church of Babylon. They began practicing in August to prepare for a Sept. 24 fundraising concert to help feed the hungry, although members generally take summers off.
The number of bells each member plays varies depending on skill level and experience. Most handbell choir members are responsible for two notes, which translates to four bells. If their notes are C and D, they play C, C sharp, D and D sharp, Murray said.
Long Island reSound ringer Erik Westerlund, 39, of Miller Place, plays bass and covers eight large bells. He sometimes lifts them to ring but most often lets them lie flat and strikes them with mallets so he can reach them all quickly.
Westerlund has been with the group for two years and is in his 20th year playing bells with his church, Trinity Evangelical Lutheran in Rocky Point. He said he enjoys the camaraderie.
“Bells are an interesting instrument, with the group playing as one whole instrument,” Westerlund said. “If we don’t all show up it’s not going to work. Even though you know your own part, it’s not going to work without everyone else being there.”
The group hopes to continue growing (bell experience is not needed, but ringers must be able to read music well) and expanding the five-octave range of its 61 bells. Members would like to purchase their own equipment so bell maintenance costs go into handbells that are owned by the group.
Bells need regular maintenance, such as polishing and occasional professional refurbishing to replace any worn felt or clapper fittings and to tighten handles.
Individual handbells from Malmark Bellcraftsmen, the vendor the group hopes to use, range from $200 for the smallest to $1,175 for the largest, with a full five-octave set with cases and supplies costing about $28,000, Murray said. The group hopes to buy a five-octave set and held a concert in June to raise money toward the purchase and for bell maintenance and music purchases.
In addition to the brass bells, Long Island reSound uses hand chimes, which are tuned square tubes that resemble a tuning fork that are lighter and more resilient than handbells and have a slightly different tone. The group also brings in the occasional accent instrument such as a flute or piccolo.
Long Island reSound’s wide-ranging song choices reflect members’ mixed ages — from 23 to 65 — and the group’s desire to broaden its appeal. It plays staple holiday songs, music from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” “Sing We Now of Christmas” and “Up On the Housetop,” as well as “Good Vibrations” from the Beach Boys, “Wizards in Winter” from the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and songs from “Les Misérables,” along with sacred music.
The modern and popular selections resonated with the audience at the June fundraising concert at First Presbyterian. The ensemble performed Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and it “just blew me away,” said Beth Summerhayes, 58, of Malverne. “I wasn’t expecting it. It’s a lot more than church music.”
Long Island reSound’s ringers practice two hours a week, usually on Wednesday, for much of the year, and many review their music at home, highlighting the notes they are responsible for or tapping it out with spoons, Murray said.
There was easy camaraderie at the group’s first August practice session as ringers reviewed new music for their fall concerts, and some groans and long faces when members hit wrong notes or missed an entrance on music they hadn’t played in months.
“Well, you know, a couple of weeks from now . . .,” said Kathy Burmil, 47, of Mastic Beach, her voice trailing off as she looked at her music. “As long as you don’t need all the notes right now.”
Even though group members can appear so tightly focused on the job at hand that they look miserable, “We’re not, really, I promise,” director Jan Murray, Jennifer’s mother, explained to the audience at the June concert. “It’s just a lot of concentration. It goes by really fast, and you have to worry about key changes, timing and turning the page.” Murray, 56, of Mastic, was her daughter’s handbell choir director at First Presbyterian when Jennifer was growing up.
For Desiree Lopez, 29, of Islip Terrace, who also played piccolo during one of the June concert’s military-themed numbers, the ringers are like a second family. She resolved on New Year’s to join a musical group, but never imagined it would be a bell choir. Lopez said she learned about the group from ringer Jessica Gerow, 28, of West Babylon, a co-worker.
“The music we play is fun, and it’s fun to belong to something,” Lopez said.
Music for a cause
Long Island reSound is holding a Sept. 24 fundraising concert to help fund its sculpture of cans for the 10th Canstruction Long Island competition, where teams compete to design and build structures using cans of food that are later donated to help feed the hungry. The resulting sculptures will be on display from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Oct. 28-Nov. 13 at RXR Plaza in Uniondale.
The concert begins at 7 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church of Babylon, 79 E. Main St., Babylon. Long Island reSound’s concert schedule is available longislandresound.com/events
Anyone interested in joining the group can contact Jennifer Murray at 631-294-6828 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Auditions for 2017 are scheduled for 7 p.m. March 8, but anyone interested can contact Murray before then.