Monday, February 15, 2010

Handbell Ringing

Handbells have been a long running tradition in Alfred. Lois Boren Scholes organized the first meetings in 1958. While now it might seem out of the ordinary for a small village to buy a set of handbells and train the villagers to use them, bell ringing's popularity increased in the United States (conveniently) during the 50's (English Handbells). However, a group of bell ringers still exists today and is led by the local library director, Lana Meissner.

Scholes is said to have run a tight ship; everything needed to be properly performed. Each player, as shown i
n the picture, wore handcrocheted white gloves, which while protected the bells, also made the group look extremely formal. Each woman wears a plain black dress (past their knees), and many of them are also wearing pearls and lipstick which adds to the formality of the group.

The old set of bells are made of brass and leather (Bouck); they were originally cast at the oldest foundry in England, the White Chapel Foundry, who also made the Liberty Bell and Big Ben (Whitechapel). Everything about them is functional: there is very little ornamentation so that they may have the clearest ring; also, the riveted leather strap allows the players to appropriately clang the bells, while still having a grip so as not to throw them across the room. Today, the group is not using the original set of bells, and it is believed that they are with Scholes' daughter. The bells are a beautiful silver with sturdy plastic handles. The bells are most often used for practice and then for the annual Christmastime concert and sometimes for Palm Sundays as well; concerts are located at the Alfred Seventh Day Baptist Church for the Union University service on Sundays. This year, Meissner hopes to start teaching the Sunday school students and get them ready for a small concert on Palm Sunday.

Scholes is said to have trained "many people from the area," but the group in the picture consists of all white middle class women. Is it possible that while not only are they providing music for the church, but that the group provides a social connection for themselves? Also, through bell playing, many women might have learned to read music, or at least better their hand-eye coordination. Furthermore, it was and is a way for the ringers to provide for and connect to the community while enjoying themselves.

Today the bell group is diverse, ranging in age, background and gender. Some have a large amount of experience with music and hand bells and some are beginners. Lana says she took over conducting the group in 1990 after a music major from Alfred University had been working for a few years. She says that her as well as many of the others in the group felt that his choices in music were not "accessible" to the public.

Scholes says that the, "handbells [were] expensive, but I think of them as my mink coat." They were a comfort to her and to the community. She originally, eventually, bought the entire 4-octave set "plus a large bell" as best could with her own money (Bouck).

Handbells have a long tradition in medieval history, as the bell ringers of the town were asked to "drive the spirits away." They're now used in a much more musical way, which many people would consider to be based in musical beauty and spiritual inspiration. The sharp tones played from these bells, especially when played in an acoustically-sound church, could remind the listeners of angels or some higher being with their rich harmonies.

Meissner says that she truly enjoys being in the group and she likes that in this type of ensemble, "everyone's important. There's no one that truly excels within the group," and "even if you play, say, an A and a D, you depend on everyone else for when you play." It encourages cooperation and when it's all working, it's a good, different sound. She says the hardest part is for everyone to commit weekly to the group.

Overall, she just wants the group to have fun. "It's not as much precision-based. I feel like we contribute to the greater good."


Bouck, Dorothy. "Handbell Ringing." Comp. The Alfred Historical Society and Baker's Bridge Association. History of Alfred, New York. Dallas: Curtis Media Corporation, 1990. 28-29. Print.

"The History of English Handbell Ringing." Home - Web. 13 Feb. 2010.

"History of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry Ltd." The Whitechapel Bell Foundry Ltd. Web. 13 Feb. 2010.

Meissner, Lana. "Alfred's Handbell Group." Personal interview. 17 Feb. 2010.

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