RALEIGH - For anyone who thinks the words "cool" and "awesome" shouldn't be applied to hand bells, meet David Harris.
An unapologetic "hand bell fanatic, " Harris, 46, has dedicated the past 17 years to bringing hand bell music to the masses. As music director of the Raleigh Ringers, Harris orchestrates a 17-member hand bell ensemble that has the skill and audacity to cover such rock luminaries as the Eagles, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Who and Led Zeppelin.
"He's definitely the visionary behind the group," said Audrey Yosai, 23, who moved to Raleigh from Kansas last year to join the Raleigh Ringers. "Without him, the group would not have gone where it has."
The Raleigh Ringers' accomplishments are impressive, especially considering the group plays a niche instrument known for creating highly religious and solemn music. To date, the group has sold more than 50,000 copies of recordings, filmed a television special and created a concert DVD.
In 2006, the Ringers performed for more than 20,000 people, with many fans flying to Raleigh from around the country to attend the group's December concerts at Meymandi Hall.
That the Ringers have groupies is largely a tribute to Harris, who labored for years as an unpaid volunteer while also working full time and raising a family.
"He's a master at choosing things that program well for hand bell people," says Hart Morris, a composer who lives in Tulsa, Okla., and frequently writes music for the group. "There's nothing I've ever composed for them that they couldn't play."
Hymns to hurricane
A typical Ringers concert includes a range of musical styles, from hymns to classical orchestral pieces to the Benny Hill theme "Yakety Sax" to "Rock You Like a Hurricane" by the German rock group the Scorpions. With 350 bells valued at about $200,000, the Raleigh Ringers have a collection that dwarfs those owned by other performing groups.
"They have a set of any kind of hand bell that's ever been made," Morris says.
Harris says performing in such an elaborate hand bell ensemble poses unique challenges because no one person can play all the melody. Each ringer can only play a subset of notes, which means a successful arrangement requires both coordination and teamwork.
"You really have to listen to each other," Harris says.
A Raleigh Ringers concert also includes a fair amount of showmanship, with members, including Harris, donning tie-dye T-shirts and wigs during the rock segment.
"They're very raucous," assistant director Kryn Krautheim says of the group's crowds. "They raise cell phones and light lighters."
Though he has made a name for himself filtering rock music through hand bells, Harris learned to play the same way that most people do -- by performing in his church choir as a child growing up in Pennsylvania.
Harris majored in computer science at Penn State University and moved to Raleigh in 1982 to take a job with IBM, where he still works as a software development manager. He began playing hand bells with a group at Hudson Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh.
Harris had performed in the Marching Blue Band at Penn State but now plays no instruments other than hand bells. He says the group soon felt confined performing only sacred church music and began experimenting with show tunes and other secular music.
Group branches off
The group soon asked Harris to change from ringing to being musical director. In January1990 the Raleigh Ringers formed as an independent community group with the intention of practicing and performing year-round.
"We didn't want to use church resources; we wanted to be independent," Harris says. The group persuaded a bell manufacturer to lend them several sets of bells, and Harris got just enough applicants to fill all 17 spots.
The Ringers' first big break came in December 1992 when they were asked to perform on a morning radio program in the Triangle. Near the end of the performance, Harris told the hosts they had a special surprise for listeners. The group then broke into Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."
"People started calling in and hosts just loved it," Harris says.
Although rock songs still make up a small percentage of the Raleigh Ringers repertoire, they have become the group's trademark.
These days, working under Harris has become a dream job for aspiring hand bell players. Harris even requires returning members to re-audition each year.
Last week the group's annual auditions drew 22 people to Raleigh from all over the country. The ringers were competing for unpaid positions that require them to practice three and a half hours a week and perform 25 to 30 concerts a year.
He's "amazing," says Nancy Ritter, 46, who moved to Raleigh from Florida with her husband and two children after auditioning in 1994. "He's one of the few directors involved in bells who isn't a composer."
Harris, whose wife and daughter ring at the family's church, says his conducting style has evolved over the years. He's less demonstrative and flamboyant these days, and has begun memorizing the group's music scores.
One thing that hasn't changed is the Raleigh Ringers' overall mission.
"We like to have fun but we also like to be taken seriously," says Krautheim, Harris' assistant. "One of our goals is to bring hand bells into the mainstream."
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"The music was beautiful, the entertainment hilarious, and the whole experience was wonderfully worthwhile. We loved it so much we tried to get a flight changed to come hear your concert again!"
- Anonymous Fan
“What skill and diversity of music! I could have listened another three hours! Thank you for the inspiration and entertainment!”
- Anonymous Fan
“I never would have thought I'd want to go to a handbell concert, but when I heard handbell rock ’n’ roll on the radio, I told my friends, ‘We're going!’ And it was just great.”
- Anonymous Fan
"The Raleigh Ringers are the best handbell ensemble on the globe!!!!”
Minister of Music and Composer
“Wow!!!!!!!!!!!!! They never cease to amaze me. Their playing is so musical, their technique impeccable.”
Cleveland Area, Ohio
"Thank you all for being ambassadors of superb musicianship, amazing technique, and sharing the joy of doing something you love, which is contagious.”
Assistant to Director of Music Ministries
National Presbyterian Church, Washington, D.C.
“The Raleigh Ringers are truly a wonderful instrument. It is a joy to watch how precisely they respond to director David Harris' musical goals, and how audiences respond as well. This group has definitely attained 'handbell superstar' status.”
Sonos Handbell Ensemble
San Francisco, CA
“The best part was, in spite of all the amazing things that they can do with bells – the bass ringer assignments, flawless technique, and all of those kind of things – the best part was that it was musical. I simply enjoyed the music.”
Associate Director of Music and Organist
First United Methodist Church of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio
“...I did not know how good 'good' is in bell ringing until I heard you. It was simply superb, and you must have known that from the unusually enthusiastic response from the audience.”
Chautauqua, New York