Make A Joyful Ring: Bell Choirs, Community Music In Churches

There’s an old Irish saying, “Poor is the church without music.”

There’s an old Irish saying, “Poor is the church without music.”

Throughout the past few weeks on Artworks, we’ve explored just how churches in Bloomington, IN convey their musical wealth.

In the final segment today, we step outside the box a bit… no singing, no organ… and instead, a bell choir.

Such a unique sound.And tough to achieve!

That’s the St. Mark’s United Methodist bell choir, under the direction of Elaine Sonnenberg, performing “Now the Green Blade Riseth” during the communion portion of a Christmas service.

It takes 12 people and 5 octaves of bells to create this amazing wash of sound. Generally each player has one bell in each hand.

So it’s all a matter of finding your two notes on a page of music COVERED with notes and playing them in exact rhythm.

The epitome of teamwork. And a lot more difficult than you might think!

I caught up with Elaine Sonnenberg, the bell choir director at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church and a doctoral student in organ at Indiana University.

She directs two bell choirs at the church, one for adults and one for children.

Sonnenberg explained that all of her bell choir members have some level of musical background, even the children, and this allows her to program more complicated pieces.

I had never played the bells before, but I was excited for her to show me the ropes.

First things first… Put on the white gloves with the textured palms. “You don’t want to drop the bell while you’re ringing,” Sonnenberg cautioned.

Grab it right underneath the bell, with your thumb and fore-finger parallel to the rim of the bell.

Then, swing the bell in a circular motion with the open-end of the bell always pointing toward the ceiling. It’s a smooth, graceful motion, and one that I didn’t quite master!

To dampen the bell, touch it right under your clavicle bone. But make sure to do this in rhythm as well!

It’s just as important to dampen your bell in time with the music and it is to ring the bell in time.

This is the complicated part for a novice such as myself.

After our quick lesson, Sonnenberg and I played through Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” melody.

She played three bells (two in one hand – very impressive!) while I struggled knowing just when to play the two bells for which I was responsible.

The experience of playing in a bell choir was a unique one for me.

After my morning with Sonnenberg, listening to her choir’s rendition of “Now the Green Blade Riseth” was that much more impressive.

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Listen to Church Musicians Part I: Choir Director Susan Swaney

Listen to Church Musicians Part II: Children’s Choir Director James Guyer

Listen to Church Musicians Part III: Church Organist Edwin Penhorwood

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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