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Our State Magazine - Lords of the Ring

12/1/2005
Dedication, innovation, joy—here are three nouns that can easily be used in the same breath with “Raleigh Ringers.” This unique ensemble of musicians from the Capital City has been in existence since 1990, and their popularity remains on the rise as more and more people discover this music that—it can be truthfully said—certainly rings a bell with audiences. 
By L.A. Jackson
 
Dedication, innovation, joy—here are three nouns that can easily be used in the same breath with “Raleigh Ringers.” This unique ensemble of musicians from the Capital City has been in existence since 1990, and their popularity remains on the rise as more and more people discover this music that—it can be truthfully said—certainly rings a bell with audiences. 
 
David Harris is the director of the Raleigh Ringers and has been with the group since the genesis of this alternate way to jingle began from a handbell program he led at Hudson Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh. At first, as was typical, his handbell choir simply complemented the worship services from fall through spring and then took the summer off. However, Harris and his band of merry bell ringers were having too much fun to take a break, so they combined their church compositions with several additional secular numbers and began what they called “Summer Bellfest” concerts. Bellfest became a big summertime event, and lit the proverbial light bulb over Harris’ head. He says, “This idea of handbell concerts and outreach to others is what spawned the idea of forming a community handbell group not associated with any particular church or school.” 
 
Interestingly, Harris was on to a similar idea that first introduced handbell choirs to the American public. In 1840, P.T. Barnum heard a handbell group in Lancashire, England, and was so impressed by their unique sound that he took them on tour in the U.S. for ten years. (Historical side note: Barnum billed them as “The Swiss Bell Ringers,” and paid the English lads extra money not to speak in public.) In 1990, the Raleigh Ringers were organized. However, their reason for existing went beyond simply playing concerts. They also became dedicated to the advancement of the understanding and enjoyment of bell ringing. The Ringers sponsored and participated in workshops, tours and other educational opportunities; helped novice bell ringers with their craft; and encouraged handbell composers to create new works. 
 
Playing music that far transcended “Jingle Bells” became the signature of the Raleigh Ringers. Original tunes were mixed with religious and secular selections—and then came rock ‘n’ roll. In 1992, while looking for new inspiration, Harris found heaven, as in “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin. Harris admits that adapting guitar solos to bell ringing was, to say the least, challenging, but the Ringers pulled it off. “Stairway to Heaven” became a local sensation and even received radio play. This was followed by equally amazing adaptations of such rock classics as Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin,” Aerosmith’s “Dream On” and Lynard Skynard’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” And did someone just yell for “Freebird?” The Ringers can bang that tune out on the bells, too. The group now tries to add at least one more rock ‘n’ roll composition to their repertoire each year, but Harris says the Ringers’ other “less than classical” pieces include “Yakety Sax,” “Flight of the Bumblebee,” “Entry of the Gladiators,” “Dueling Banjos” and “Stars and Stripes Forever.” This is not to say that the Raleigh Ringers have completely let their hair down. Classical music, which can translate beautifully with handbells, is well represented with ageless favorites such as Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C# Minor” (adapted and arranged by Douglas Floyd Smith), Tchaikovsky’s Overture from “The Nutcracker” (Kevin McChesney), Mozart’s Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro” (Martha Lynn Thompson), Bach’s “Little Fugue” (Michael Kastner) and Rossini’s Overture from “The Barber of Seville” (Martha Lynn Thompson). 
 
Although the Ringers stay busy with song adaptations, they also make sure they save room for original compositions created for handbells, as these works excel in bringing out the best in the bells. Two composers Harris has been working closely with are Dr. William Payn from Bucknell University, who has written several works especially for the Raleigh Ringers, and Fred Gramann, Director of Music at the American Church of Paris in France.
 
From rock to classical to original, the Raleigh Ringers couldn’t do justice to any musical work more complicated than “Chopsticks” if they didn’t have the range of equipment to properly translate the scores into music. And they certainly do. The Ringers have the most extensive collection of handbells and bell-like instruments owned by a single performing group in the world. They currently own 361 pieces, which gives them an impressive spread of 29 ½ octaves. The cost for the bells ranges from a low of $100 to a high of about $5000.
 
Having such a large range of bells and certainly knowing how to use them has made the Raleigh Ringers a band in demand. They stage several annual events across our state, including the Capital Area Handbell Festival, Governor’s Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony and many holiday as well as spring concerts. Dallas, Las Vegas, San Diego, Tampa, Memphis, Charleston—these and many other cities in over 30 states have also received special visits from the Ringers in the past 15 years. In addition, the group has crossed the country participating in many events sponsored by the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers (AGEHR). 
 
The beauty of the music from their bells is also responsible for a memorable trip to France in July, 1996, which included performances at Church of the Holy Trinity in Paris and the Notre Dame Cathedral in Chartres. David Harris especially remembers the Ringers’ concert in the small village of Marines. He says, “No one in the town spoke a word of English, so we felt very distant from the folks as we moved in and set up. When the concert started, the audience became mesmerized by the music, and they were trying very hard to see what we were doing and how we were making the sounds we made. At the conclusion of the concert, the audience flocked our tables and showed their appreciation for coming to their village.”
 
The Raleigh Ringers are also no strangers to the airwaves. In addition to performing live on many radio stations across the state, the group was featured on the nationally syndicated Bob and Tom Show from Indianapolis in June of this year. The Ringers have also been televised at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, on the national broadcast of the “Hour of Power” program. 
 
In 2001, in response to fans’ request, the Raleigh Ringers produced a DVD of one of their holiday performances at the Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh. From this video came an edited, one-hour version that was aired on UNC-TV in 2002. UNC-TV was impressed enough with the concert to help the Ringers syndicate it to PBS stations across the country. In 2003 and 2004, the show was broadcast on over 250 PBS stations in 45 states, and chances are pretty good that a deserved retelecast of the concert will happen once again this holiday season. 
 
So, what’s it like to be a Raleigh Ringer? Perhaps the best way to find out is to ask a veteran member of the group as well as a rookie ringer. Cindy Massey is a charter member of the group who had been playing the bells for six years before joining the Ringers in 1990. Her memories of the early days give some insight into the founding of the fledgling organization. She notes, “The chartered members shared not only their vast musical talents that first year, but provided invaluable expertise in other key areas as well: accounting, law, sales and marketing, art, costuming, sewing and networking.” As far as bells, Massey is given a wide range of assignments, from low bass to the highest treble, but she prefers to toll rather than tinkle. Of course, the lower the note, the heftier the bell, but it is not a problem for Massey, who says, “I was a tournament bowler for 35 years, so I don’t mind the weight of the heavier bells.” 
 
Keith Burt moved from Florida this year, in part, to be a Raleigh Ringer. Burt says, “I met Dave Harris in Orlando at a handbell festival. He had an opportunity to see me ring, and afterward mentioned that I would be welcome to audition if I happened to be in Raleigh. That meeting plus some personal changes helped to get the ball rolling for me.” 
 
A common passion has melded Burt into the group, but as a result, he has also discovered friendship. He says, “We really spend a lot of time together, and there is definitely a family aspect to who we are, and I have come to enjoy that a great deal.” 
 
Burt notes that the group practices once a week for three to four hours, but he admits, “Personally, I’ll spend a little outside time with some of the music in order to work on harder parts.” 
 
Dedication to the craft is one force that drives a Raleigh Ringer, but so are auditions. In order to keep the skill level at its highest, David Harris has annual auditions for all 16 slots in the group. He says, “The fact of the matter is, statistically, most members who re-audition make it back into the group. To be honest, I think it’s something that has helped keep us on our toes. Our ringers know that they can’t become complacent, which in turn, hopefully, encourages them to keep up their ringing skills.” 
 
Besides gleefully admitting that playing with the Raleigh Ringers is the most fun she has ever had in her life, Cindy Massey aptly sums up the entire experience, “By commissioning new handbell works, competently teaching the trade, encouraging beginners as well as seasoned handbell ringers, and ‘pushing the musical envelope,’ the Raleigh Ringers continues to build its reputation as one of the nation’s top handbell performing ensembles.”
 
(For more information on the Raleigh Ringers as well as to view a schedule of their upcoming concert, go to their Web site at: www.rr.org.) 
 
The author lives in Apex.