You might be surprised at what you hear at the Granite State Ringers’ upcoming handbell concerts.
It’s not Christmas music. It’s not church music, either. In fact, some of the songs they’re playing aren’t remotely uplifting, like Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and pieces from Les Misérables.
“It’s a unique sound. … We do holiday concerts as well, and we play the Christmas stuff, but bells can do more than just Christmas music,” said Joan Fossum, Granite State Ringers director and co-founder. “Bells are only as limiting as you choose to make them. Concerts like these show some of the things that can be done musically with handbells.”
What might also come as a surprise, as it did for Landis Magnuson, is the quality of sound handbells can make. The Saint Anselm professor and Anselmian Abbey Players director had never heard anything quite like it when he and his family saw them play at Relay for Life last year.
Part of his awe had to do with his own handbell playing experience. He, his wife and daughter play handbells at their church in Manchester, so he had already garnered a special appreciation for the handbell sound.
“They’re [GSR] holding multiple bells in each hand, and just by the flick of their wrist, they can make one bell in their left hand ring but not the other. Our jaws were on the floor,” Magnuson said.
He was so enamored, in fact, that he helped organize a concert at his church, the Gethsemane Lutheran Church, in Manchester on April 27, one of four GSR upcoming concerts. The others are at the Congregational Church of Amherst, the Bow Mills United Methodist Church and Smith Memorial UCC. The concerts have a “Bells at Play” theme and include kid-friendly music as well.
“It’s an eclectic mix, but it’s all meant to be fun and energetic music that people will recognize,” Fossum said.
Each ringer will manage as many as 10 bells at once. This requires a special technique that may mean holding two bells in each hand. The ringers might also have to switch bells mid-song.
Fossum says the music itself is relatable to piano music; each bell corresponds to one key on a piano.
Most handbell choirs are in churches, like Magnuson’s, but the Granite State Ringers are on a different level than most. The 15 musicians — comprised of five octaves of bells, five and a half octaves of chimes — hold three-hour practices twice a month, with the expectation that they’ll spend more time on their own learning the parts.
Fossum started Granite State Ringers in 2007 with Mary Divers. Their intention was to offer handbell musicians the chance to play more challenging music, and also to promote handbell repertoire to audiences all over the state. Current members come from all over, from Keene and Concord to Rochester and Meredith.
“At that point [in 2007], most of the [handbell] music was predominantly church-based ringing. Our thinking was to extend an opportunity to ring a different kind of music, and perhaps some music with a little more difficulty,” Fossum said.
Fossum has been playing handbells for 25 years now. She picked up the art abroad while her husband was stationed in Germany. When he was re-stationed in Texas, she became more involved in the handbell scene there.
“There’s a team concept to playing this instrument. It takes a group of 13 to 15 people to do what we do,” Fossum said. “It’s part of the attraction.”
Most of their regular concerts are in churches, but they’re looking to ring alongside the Lakes Region Symphony Orchestra next fall, and Fossum would like to expand to other venues as well.
“It’s a unique sound,” Fossum said.
As seen in the April 24, 2014 issue of the Hippo.