Silver bells, silver bells. … Four church handbell choirs are getting ready to perform as one. … It’s Christmas time in the Boro.
Their tuned sets of bells are more likely made of bronze. But the handbell choirs of Trinity Episcopal Church, Statesboro First United Methodist Church, Pittman Park United Methodist Church and First Presbyterian Church will deliver a massed concert for this season of silver and gold. The concert at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 2, in Trinity Episcopal’s sanctuary has no admission fee, but all donations will go to help support Fostering Bulloch’s 7th Mile Farm.
“We’ve never had a massed choir of the local handbell choirs in Statesboro to perform,” said Shirley Helmly, handbell choir director at Trinity Episcopal.
Some of the churches have kept up handbell choir traditions for years. Getting all four choirs together is the new thing. Trinity’s bell choir, for example, started at least 15 years ago. It typically performs twice during the Advent season, including one number with the regular choir during the church’s annual Lessons and Carols service, Helmly said.
The handbell choir she directs currently has 11 members. The bell choirs at Pittman Park and First Presbyterian are similar sized, while Statesboro First United Methodist’s is a little larger. Together, by Helmly’s estimates, they would add up to 40 to 50 bell ringers, if all could participate.
Bells and octaves
How many people does it take to make a full-range handbell choir, anyway?
“It depends on how many octaves of handbells you’re trying to ring,” Helmly said.
Covering one octave requires at least eight bells, but playing chromatics, the in-between notes of the chromatic scale, such as C-sharp, requires more bells per octave.
“In an ideal situation, each bell ringer needs to ring only two bells, and maybe the accidentals that go with those two bells, but you know when you’re a voluntary group you don’t get them there all the time, and sometimes with my choir some of them end up ringing four bells rather than just two,” Helmly said.
A handbell choir might perform with as a little as a two-octave range. Helmly leads a three-octave choir, while Statesboro First United Methodist’s group has enough members to cover nearly a five-octave range, she said.
Two members of the massed choir, including one from Trinity Episcopal and one from Pittman Park, are capable of playing “four-in-hand,” with two of the smaller, higher-pitched bells in each hand.
Despite the group’s potential size, the massed-choir carols will be performed in a three-octave range, Helmly said. With some university students going home for the holidays and other players missing for reasons ranging from serious illness to vacation, the assembled choirs will not be able to bring quite their full combined membership.
“So, we’ve had to choose numbers that we can actually perform with the number of people we have available,” she said.
Still, with each church’s handbell choir separately performing some numbers, interspersed with the massed choir performing together, an impressive selection of seasonal music is expected to ring through a concert lasting maybe 70 minutes.
Trinity Episcopal’s bell choir, alone, will do “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and an unusual arrangement of “We Three Kings,” Helmly said.
Planned massed-choir numbers include “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Carol of the Bells,” “Once in Royal David’s City” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
First United Methodist’s handbell choir may perform “In Dulce Jubillo” and “I Wonder as I Wander,” among others, Helmly has heard. The other directors were not interviewed, and these are only examples.
A few of the numbers have been chosen for the audience to sing to the accompaniment of the bells, and the program will end with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
Helmly is coordinating the shared concert with handbell choir directors Lee Walker of First United Methodist Church, Allen Henderson of First Presbyterian Church and Sandy Macdonald of Pittman Park United Methodist Church.
But with the holiday season here and because of the difficulty of moving the tables and the cases of bells, the choirs are practicing separately, until a single shared rehearsal session the afternoon before the concert.
The bell concert forms part of the benefit concert series, now in its 16th season, that Trinity Episcopal Church hosts annually. No admission is ever charged, but donations at each concert benefit a different nonprofit organization in Statesboro or Bulloch County. Trinity invites musicians and choirs from other churches, and often student ensembles, to perform.
For example, the Georgia Southern Flute Choir performed at the Nov. 17 benefitting Open Hearts Community Mission, and the Agape Worship Center Choir sang in September, with donations going to Habitat for Humanity of Bulloch County for the construction of a specific home.