Granite State Ringers make spirits bright

Special to the Union Leader
December 02. 2012 9:17PM
Kandia Watson, her daughter, Jordan, and Sharon Parker, show how handbell musicians work together, ringing a range of notes from different size bells at Rochester's First United Methodist Church. (BARBARA TAORMINA PHOTO)
THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT can sometimes be elusive. But for anyone looking for that sense of Christmas cheer that links strangers, bridges generations and floods minds with memories of unrestrained childhood joy, the Granite State Ringers can help.

A community handbell choir that draws some of the most accomplished and experienced handbell musicians from around the state, the group performs a program of well-known holiday pieces that capture the most fundamental sounds and emotions of Christmas. The choir's next performance is Dec. 8 at noon for the NH for the Holidays Expo at the Radisson, 700 Elm St., Manchester.

"The thing we hear most often is, 'Is that really just bells?'" said the choir's director, Joan Fossum, who started ringing more than 25 years ago in a church bell choir in Texas.

Fossum now teaches in Pittsfield and lives in Concord, where she has served as director of several church bell choirs. She launched the Granite State Ringers in 2007 with fellow ringer and music teacher Mary Divers, director of A Joyful Noise, the bell choir for the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Laconia.

The goal was to create a choir of experienced handbell ringers who could take on more complex pieces and generate more interest in the art of handbell ringing.

The Granite State Ringers are part of a bell-ringing renaissance that's been gaining ground over the past 50 years. The Handbell Ringers of America, a national organization of handbell and handchime musicians, was started in 1955 with about four dozen members. Today more than 7,000 members participate in the organization's festivals, concerts and events.

Fossum remembers when there were far fewer choirs ringing bells.

"A lot of people felt that handbell ringing was not real music," she said, adding that today there are a lot more people and players who are aware of the range and power of bells.

"Over the past 10 to 15 years, there's been a huge surge in using handbells in schools," she said. "It's a wonderful way to teach musical skills to children."

61 bells, 66 chimes

Many, but not all, of the Granite State Ringers are teachers and musicians. Rebecca Butler, a Laconia resident and teacher in the Pembroke School District, came to handbells through her experience playing flute and piccolo.

"I had learned to play four bells, and I was looking to go to the next level," said Butler who was drawn to the Granite State Ringers because of the choir's collective experience and choice of more complex music.

"It's a group that continues to challenge me," she said. But the challenge isn't just in the choice of music. The Granite State Ringers play five octaves of handbells, and five and a half octaves of handchimes.

As Hancock resident and ringer Emlee Kohler, explained, those octaves add up to 61 bells and 66 chimes, each one played as an individual note. As the 17 Granite State Ringers perform, they read the same music, keep the same beat contrasting and blending single notes into full, rich chords.

"There's a lot of coordination and precision involved," said Divers, who added that the intricate timing makes bell-ringing as interesting to watch as it is to hear.

Fellowship, fun

The Granite State Ringers encourage anyone with an interest in handbells to find a choir and try ringing.

"The important thing about handbell ringing is do you like it and do you care," said Fossum. "The philosophy is about the fellowship; the music is almost secondary."

Farmington resident Kandia Watson, who has been ringing for 25 years and directs the Witherell Handbell Choir at the First United Methodist Church in Rochester, said that, like everything else, how far you go with bells depends on how much you put into them.

Both Watson and Sharon Parker learned to ring with the Rochester choir when a set of bells was bequeathed to the church in the 1980s.

"Everyone in the choir was in awe of what bells could do," said Parker. "And once you start learning, you just pick up more and more."

Bringing back memories

Today, Rochester is a hot spot for bells. Watson and Parker said residents were disappointed when the Granite State Ringers left the city off last year's Christmas concert schedule. This year the group performed Saturday at Rochester's First United Methodist Church.

Due to popular demand, they've also decided to put "Carol of the Bells" back on the program.

Parker said the Granite State Ringers thought they should add some variety to their play list, but "Carol of the Bells" is a favorite among the choir's fan base.

For the Granite State Ringers, the chance to connect with audiences and spread handbell music is one of the best parts of the Christmas concert schedule.

"I love to play," said Parker. "It can be hard sometimes, and it can be a lot of work, but it's easy to smile when I look out at the audience and see someone who looks happy or someone who has tears in their eyes because the music has brought back memories."

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