When new ringers join the handbell community, there is plenty of jargon to confuse them. Besides random techniques like “martellato” that are unique to handbells, there is a history of fabulous ensembles that bell ringers use as examples and inspiration. I know when I first joined the bell community it took me years to figure out who all these random groups were and why they were important. So for new ringers everywhere, here is my list of 10 handbell ensembles every ringer should be familiar with. How many of these do you know?
Let’s start with a bit of handbell history. In the 90’s there was a group on the west coast called Campanile that strove to create handbell theater. The group lasted for nearly a decade doing performances that blended ringing with jazz, opera, and theater. Many of the members of Campanile are still active in bell ringing on the west coast, and you will see them regularly teaching classes and ringing with groups throughout the area. Here is their version of “Hernando’s Hideaway” from their Rites of Sound DVD.
From Puerto Rico, this group of high school aged ringers puts on an astounding show. The thing that makes this group stand out in my mind is their unique technique. While many of the healthy ringing advocates cringe when they see the kids in Vivace perform, their non-traditional ringing style allows them to play faster and cleaner than most other groups. We were lucky enough to be able to take a class from them during the 2012 Area XII conference at Disneyland and learn first hand how they use crazy assignments and techniques in their performances. Watch this performance of Alberto Ginastera’s “Malambo” from their 2010 Pinnacle performance and see if you can catch some of their tricks.
Traveling to the other side of the planet, the Arsis Handbell Ensemble is the premier handbell ensemble in Estonia. They are a small ensemble, comprising of only 8 ringers, that plays on 7 octaves of bells. Their unique set up allows them to share bells in insanely complicated bell assignments. Here is their performance of “Czardas” by V.Monti.
Ring of Fire
This now dissolved group of highly ambitious teenagers set the bar in the early 2000s for what handbell ensembles could do. Under the direction of Jason Wells, this group performed difficult music from memory on their trademark red tables without skirts. The energy this group gives off is palpable. Their 2004 DVD “Ring of Fire” is on my required watching list for anyone really interested in pushing bells to the next level. Even though it was recorded in the days before HD video, the energy the kids perform with pulls you into their performance. Here is a clip from a television appearance they did performing Kevin McChesney’s “Capriccio”.
Kiriku Handbell Ensemble
Arguably the best handbell ensemble in the world, Kiriku blows away audiences with their precision, passions, and musicality. Using only 7 ringers on 5+ octaves of bells, this group sets the bar for what is possible on the instrument. We got to see them perform at the 2013 Handbell National Seminar, and I have never seen a room full of handbell musicians get that excited over a performance. In honor of Valentines day, here is their version of “LOVE” by Nat King Cole. In addition to everything else awesome about this performance, notice that all the octaves are done be two separate people instead of one person shellying, and yet every note is perfectly together.
Kinjo Gakuin University Handbell Choir
This all female group from Japan is one I honestly don’t know much about, except that all of their performances on YouTube are spectacular. I’ve tried to do some research, but being monolingual has hindered that search. Our post of their video performing an arrangement of Glenn Miller classics is one of the most popular posts on the blog. Here is their performance of “Melody in F” by Cynthia Dobrinski. If anyone out there knows any more about this group, let us know.
Sonos Handbell Ensemble
Founded in 1990, Sonos Handbell Ensemble has been demonstrating to the world the professional side of our art form. Most of the pieces Sonos performs are arranged by their director Jim Meredith and fall into what I am going to categorize as “new age classical” (I’m sure some of the composers out there is going to correct me on that one). Here is one of Meredith’s original composition for bells and cello entitled “Smirti”.
The Raleigh Ringers
If we were to give out superlative awards to handbell ensembles, the Raleigh Ringers would definitely win the Most Popular award. With over 5,000 fans on Facebook alone, they pack their concerts wherever they perform. In fact, if you haven’t heard of the Raleigh Ringers, why are you reading this blog? Along with being fabulous handbell musicians, they like to end their concerts with arrangements of classic rock. Here is their version of “Don’t Fear the Reaper”
The Hong Kong Youth Handbell Ensemble and Arsis Youth Handbell Ensemble
I combined these two because they are great examples of youth programs that are pushing the next generation of ringers to be even better. Those who were at the 2013 Handbell Musicians of America National Seminar got to see the Hong Kong Youth Ensemble perform, and those going to the 2014 Seminar get to see the Arsis Youth Handbell Ensemble. Since I just posted a video from the Arsis Youth, here is the Hong Kong Youth under the direction of Emily Li performing everyone’s favorite arrangement of “Pirates of the Caribbean” by Kevin McChesney.
Bells of the Sound
There are plenty of groups I could use to spotlight up-and-coming community handbell ensembles from around the nation, but Bells of the Sound have recently caught my attention because 1) I’ve met many of their awesome ringers, and 2) their newest CD is all jazz done on handbells. All around the country there are fabulous community groups that are growing better with each concert season. Next time I do a list of groups to keep an eye out for, it’s going to have to be longer than 10. But for now, here is “Night in Tunisia” arranged by Robin Pentland and performed by Bells of the Sound.
So that’s my list of 10 handbell ensembles everyone should know. Who would you include on your list?