“One, two-and-three-and-one, two-and-three-and-one,” Mary Johnson, student conductor of the Pitt Handbell Ensemble, calls out over a cacophony of ringing bells.
The students of the ensemble continue to follow Johnson’s count for a few measures then slowly start to drag behind the beat. Johnson begins to clap as she counts until she finally decides it’s time to start again, from the top.
“Boy,” she says. “Y’all slow down.” The group was going to need some more practice.
Every Thursday in William Pitt Union’s Dining Room B, the Handbell Ensemble runs through its repertoire of music with Johnson at the helm, working out the kinks at rehearsals so that each song is concert-ready.
The ensemble — formed in 2004 — began with only about 10 members. It now boasts nearly double that, at 18 members. Additionally, for the first time in the club’s history, the club officers had to cut individuals at auditions this year — some of whom had prior handbell experience. While the handbells aren’t the most trendy musical instrument among young people — it’s a talent many youngsters develop in church — the skill level and interest in Pitt’s group is garnering increased recognition from the community.
The ensemble has performed at the Nutcracker Ballet at Benedum Center for the last five years, and last December, the Handbell Ensemble opened one of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Christmas Pops concerts. The Three Rivers Ringers, a premier adult handbell ensemble in Pittsburgh, also performed along with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in that concert last winter.
For the first time this year, the ensemble earned money to perform, bringing in a $200 honorarium at Heinz Chapel Nov. 20.
Cassie Berkey, a senior neuroscience major at Pitt and the ensemble’s president, said she’s proud of the connections the group has made with organizations such as the PSO and Heinz Chapel.
“We’ve definitely done a much better job of trying to reach more out to the community and get people understanding that we’re here if they want us and that we would love for them to be involved with our organization,” Berkey said.
But bell ringing isn’t a one-man job.
Ryan Marsden, a first-year molecular biology major, like many others in the ensemble, emphasized that playing handbells is a group effort — one of the characteristics that sets it apart from other instruments.
“If one person’s missing, it doesn’t sound right because something’s missing,” Marsden said. “It relies on everyone being there and everyone being on their game.”
A passion for music unites the diverse group of students in the ensemble, which is comprised of students that wanted to try a new instrument in college in addition to experienced handbell ringers. Many of those with prior handbell experience began in church handbell choirs in middle school.
Each member of the ensemble generally commands two to eight bells — cast in bronze in a curved shape with a handle and internal clapper — where four bells is the standard. Each bell rings out a single musical note. The individual notes each member of the ensemble plays join together to create a piece of music.“It’s like if every single person was sitting in a piano and everybody had their own four notes and was just playing chopsticks fingers,” Berkey said.
Handbells grew in popularity in the United States throughout the 20th century, beginning with Margaret Shurcliff, an avid handbeller and the first American woman to ring a complete peal on tower bells in England. Today, the Handbell Musicians of America recognizes about 5,000 member organizations nationally and internationally.
Pitt’s ensemble has five octaves of handbells in addition to the original three octaves of chimes. The ensemble acquired its most recent octave of bells after successfully petitioning Student Government Board’s Allocations Committee last semester for a little under $9,000.
Johnson, a senior mathematics and economics double major, is the student conductor of the Handbell Ensemble and has played since the sixth grade. Johnson ultimately selects and purchases the music for the group, selecting contemporary pieces that range from Disney tunes to Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” to TV and movie themes — such as HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
“That’s all me,” Johnson said. “Which means we play banging tunes, as I like to say. Which means we played, ‘a Mariah Carey chart-topper’ last year, as quoted by ‘Pitch Perfect.’ And we literally did play a Mariah Carey chart-topper.”
The Handbell Ensemble plays anywhere from one to five concerts a semester, according to Berkey, with more concerts in the fall semester because of the holidays. At the ensemble’s final performances this weekend, the bellers will play favorites including “Colors of the Wind” from “Pocahontas,” as well as Christmas classics such as “Jingle Bell Rock.”
In the future, Berkey and Johnson would like to see the ensemble continue to grow and attract students who have musical talents and interests apart from simply playing handbells — such as composing.
Berkey said one of the things she appreciates most about the ensemble is the students’ willingness to laugh at themselves sometimes.
“This ensemble does a really great job of really working on the music and wanting it to be good,” Berkey said. “But also just having fun with it.”
On Friday, Dec. 2, the ensemble performs at the Nutcracker Ballet at Benedum Center, and on Dec. 3, it will hold its winter concert in the William Pitt Union Lower Lounge. Tickets to the Nutcracker Ballet start at $28, although admission through Pitt Arts has sold out. Admission to the winter concert is free.