Handbells mark holiday tradition

By Kevin Wilson

Before she began conducting the Eastern New Mexico Handbell Festival, Valerie Stephenson asked how many audience members were there to watch a relative — in other words, as she quipped soon after, how many would be in trouble had they not attended.
A little more than an hour later, Stephenson said the reason she loves events like Saturday’s festival is the exact opposite.
“The beauty of handbell playing is that it’s not like a classroom,” the retired music teacher said. “Everybody who’s here wants to be here.”
Whatever their level of participation, those in attendance at First United Methodist Church heard a collection of sound from a dozen handbell choirs across New Mexico and Texas. It was the 12th year for the event, which came to fruition many years after First United Methodist Church created its own handbell choir.
“It started out as a youth choir,” said Bill Wood, who has directed the Las Campanas choir of the church for all of its 25 years. “We had a set of handbells that were just collecting dust in the closet. We didn’t have a particular outreach for music (at that point).”
Nearly a dozen years later, Wood and others helped create the festival, which is usually held in either Clovis or Portales.
Wood said that the event hadn’t been held in Portales for a few years because most churches didn’t have an area big enough to hold all of the choir members, bells and audience members. When the new First United church was built, that changed.
Each of the choirs at the festival had anywhere from seven to 16 members — Wood said a choir usually has about 12 people — with each person responsible for a certain number of notes, which are created through the bells.
“The bells are like the keys on a piano,” said Stephenson, a native of Jacksonville, Fla. “For every black and white key on a piano keyboard, there is a bell sized to match that key.”
The bells, ranging from the size of a soda can to an ice bucket, can produce sounds in two different ways — by ringing and doing what are called “stopped sounds.”
The bell must be rung in a particular direction because the clapper (metal striking piece inside the bell) only moves in one direction. Stopped sounds can be acheived through hitting the bell with a mallet, using the bell as a mallet on a padded table, plucking the bell with a thumb or by manually using the clapper.
Each ringer had several bells that they were responsible for, and members of every choir had matching gloves, available in either black or white.
“They’re used for protecting the handbells from the acids that are in the oils on your hands,” said Ross Roberts, a sales clerk with Music Mart of Albuqueruqe. Roberts said the music supplier goes to an event every few weeks, and usually goes to about four handbell events each year.
Stephenson was no stranger to the format, as she has held several leadership positions in the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers. Throughout the event, she joked with the audience members between pieces to keep them entertained while the choirs set up for each new piece.
The 12 pieces, Wood said, were picked out about six months ago and sent to various choirs around the area. Interested choirs purchase the music and take a few months to practice it before coming down to the festival, where the combined choirs have less than a day to prepare for the one-hour festival.
Wood said the musical offerings usually consist of Thanksgiving and Christmas music, and the event is always held the Saturday prior to Thanksgiving.
“A lot of us will play in church tomorrow because it’s Thanksgiving Sunday,” said Wood, a former music professor at Eastern New Mexico University, “and we’ll have our Christmas music ready to go as well.”
For those reasons, the festival is a benefit to each choir in the form of practice. The variety of choirs, Wood said, is why the festival is a benefit to the audience members.
“A church will often have a handbell choir,” Wood said, “but this is a chance to hear 12 choirs at once.”