Watching members of the Blue Ridge Ringers in concert is like seeing the many pieces of a precision time piece working in union, while hearing the result is a soothing and even sometimes surprising experience.
“The bells are really not that loud at all,” said managing director Connie Engle, who has been with this group of community musicians since its inception in 1995. “Some are sharp and bright, others are mellow and soft, but the sound is unique. I would say that half of every audience we have ever played for has never heard bells like these before because so many people come up after and say they had no idea how beautiful it would sound.”
Clad in sparkling royal blue smocks with glittering trim around the collar, each of the 14 women in the group has extensive experience with the five octaves of Malmark handbells used to create the group’s shimmering sonic performance.
“A lot of bell ringing is muscle memory and I describe it as a ballet with your hands,” Engle explains. “There is so much more going on than just jingling a bell or hitting a chime at the right time. Ours is not a group for beginners because you really have to read sheet music well, pick out your part and understand where it fits in with everyone else.”
During concerts, 14 sets of gloved, black velvet hands are often a blur of syncopated excitement but slower moments present individual members of the group with a time to shine.
“It’s a lot like being in a marching band in that there are certain ways you have to play your instrument with the group and other ways you have to play just your part,” says Ringers founding member Anita Drake of Hendersonville. “It’s almost like you are a soloist while at the same time part of the group because you want the audience to feel as if the piece is only being played by one person while still getting the power of everyone playing at the same time.”
Fellow Blue Ridge Ringer Rose Mary Charmley distinctly remembers the first time she heard the enchanting music.
“In 1975, I was director of our children’s choir at my church in Michigan and the pastor sent me to a workshop in Chicago,” the 74-year old Brevard resident recalls. “As I was walking down the hall to one of the conferences, I heard this beautiful sound. I went down to where it was and missed the rest of the conference because I just stayed there. I knew right then I wanted to make those sounds a part of my life.”
Throughout the month of December, the group is in demand playing Christmas favorites such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, It Came Upon A Midnight Clear, Sleigh Ride and Jingle Bell Rock at public venues including Blue Ridge Community College and Flat Rock Playhouse.
“More people are involved with music during the holidays and our performances are a really good fit with the season,” Engle says. “Bells are something that call people to church and many people just seem more geared to this type or music during the holidays. We do play some concerts in the spring, but this really is our busiest time of the year.”
Being part of the group is not solely a seasonal affair. Members practice for two and a half hours every Monday at First United Methodist Church in Hendersonville and only deviate from that schedule to rest in January and during eight weeks each summer.
“We’re very strict about attendance because if someone is not there it sounds like a piano with one or two notes missing,” Drake says. “Some members have as many as eight different sets of bells to play during a performance and it’s very difficult to change back and forth.”
Since August 2005 the group has performed under the guidance of Robert Currier, who in addition to directing handbell choirs for the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers had a distinguished career composing and arranging music specifically for these special instruments.
“With this group, some members have had 20 or 30 years experience and that’s much more than you see with your average church choir,” Currier says of his band comprised of mostly senior citizens. “It takes a lot of teamwork and everyone has to depend upon one another to learn their part and learn it well, but I try to challenge them every time and try for something a little more difficult.”
Fran Hoadley of Edneyville says making the leader of the band smile is quite a rewarding experience.
“His directing is very easy to follow and whether you are doing badly or well, his eyes twinkle at you so you know what you need to do,” Hoadley said. “One of his favorite statements is ‘thatsa nice’ and that really makes a big difference in our playing. When that happens, it’s really a lovely thing for all involved because he creates such a positive and professional environment.”
The group’s youngest member, 35-year-old Julie Ryan of Hendersonville, is also impressed with the beautiful music she and her fellow bell ringers make together.
“It really is a process of continuous self -improvement to challenge yourself musically and prepare for the different techniques, but we all work well together as a team and it creates a powerful experience,” Ryan says.
Founding member Engle says what she enjoys most is the sense of friendship among her fellow musicians.
“I’ve been playing since about 1980, but I don’t think I have a favorite piece to play,” she laughs. “Most of our members are in other groups, but there is a special social aspect to the Blue Ridge Ringers because we’ve all become good friends and have helped improve ourselves through ringing. This keeps me active and I just like getting together and playing with the rest of the group.”