Handbell workshop

Listen to the handbells

Ave Maria - C. Pierson piano solo      

Spacious Firmament - C. Pierson handbell solo   

O Come All Ye Faithful - Barbara Gulick - organ; C. Pierson - bells; American Lutheran Congregation - singing

Billings handbell choir Bellissimo has sustained its signature tone for 25 years

Ringing through the years

JACI WEBB of The Gazette Staff    Dec 18, 2009


Above: Bellissimo director Judy Valley, seated, will be joined by ringers Janie Rife, Jubal Rife, Justin Rife, Mary Ann Pierson, Michael Drake and Craig Pierson, from left, and the rest of the hand bell choir for two holiday concerts Sunday. BOB ZELLAR/Gazette Staff

One handbell is the size of a kid's dump truck and another bell is so tiny it could get lost in a Christmas stocking stuffed with candy. With dozens of other various-sized bells, they make up the instrumentation of Bellissimo, a hand bell choir that is celebrating its 25th Christmas concert Sunday.

Twelve ringers clang the clappers on two, three and sometimes as many as six bells at the appropriate time, producing a sweet, chiming sound just right for Christmas music. Arms swoop forward in an arc to ring just one bell at a time to hit a specific note. Longtime ringer Julie Draeger, who plays several instruments including clarinet and saxophone and sings, said ringing handbells is the most challenging style of music she performs.

"I play an unusual position because I play three octaves of B and B flat, which is six bells, on my right hand, and one octave of A's in my left hand. At times, I am ringing rhythm and melody at the same time," Draeger said.

The late Billings composer and musician Ed Harris was a ringer in Bellissimo for about a decade, and he composed the hand bell piece "Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus" to be played while the famous 1897 editorial is read. Harris used to narrate the piece at the group's Christmas concerts. This year, Curt Haney, former pastor at First English Lutheran Church, will read the piece while Bellissimo founder Marcia Spalding directs.

Spalding said trust is a big concern for ringers because each musician plays just his or her part, expecting the other choir members to fill in when their bell notes are required. It's like 12 people sharing a piano.

"You get to be really close to everyone when you do something like this," Spalding said.

The set of bells that Bellissimo uses cost $40,000, much of which was donated to the group by a supportive arts community back in the 1980s. Several local churches have bell choirs, and members of Bellissimo are recruited from veteran church choir members.

Draeger said Bellissimo originally formed in 1983 to provide a greater challenge for some of the city's best ringers.

" We ring the highest level of bell music that is published. It's very difficult music for bell ringers," she said.

Ringers for this concert include Justin Rife, Jubal Rife, Michael Drake, Chris Sheppard, Arie Lohof, Aaron Blakeslee, Paula Jackson, Mary Ann Pierson, Julie Draeger, Aimee Briggs, Janie Rife and Craig Pierson. The group of musicians rehearses every Monday and Thursday at First United Methodist Church in downtown Billings. For more information about the group or the concert, call Valley at 248-3735.

Hand bells were invented in the 17th century in England as a way for bell tower ringers to rehearse without ringing the massive church bells. Rehearsals often took place in local pubs. Hand bells were brought to the U.S. in the 1840s and were popularized by P.T. Barnum as a circus attraction. They eventually found their way in Vaudeville, and in the 1940s were brought into churches. There are now more than 10,000 hand bell choirs in North America.

Director Judy Valley said she joined a bell choir at First English Lutheran 25 years ago after hearing just one concert because she was so struck by the beautiful sound.

"You have to be very patient," Valley said. "People get frustrated when they don't get their notes right. I have learned to relax and just go with the flow."

Yellowstone Valley Woman

December 2011/January 2012



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