Park Ridge handbell choir rings in the holidays — and beyond
Ann Siena, left, and Lynn Brant, members of Park Ridge Community Church's adult handbell choir, rehearse a piece on Nov. 29. | Buzz Orr~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 6, 2012 4:08PM
PARK RIDGE — The sound of ringing bells wafting above the pews inside Park Ridge Community Church is produced by a small group of musicians who are heard, but not often seen.
An adult choir of nine handbell ringers, led by ensemble director Sandy Bowen, meets weekly from fall to spring to rehearse on the balcony of the church sanctuary.
“It’s really Zen-like,” said Ann Siena, who has played for the past five years. “I never thought I would like it this much and I just really love it.”
Bell music is typically heard during church services around Christmas and Easter. Park Ridge Presbyterian Church, St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, and Redeemer Church have handbell groups practicing and performing this holiday season.
Park Ridge Community Church has also provided handbell players at weddings, Bowen said, and she knows of a choreographer that arranges flash-mob bell performances.
Handbell music traces its roots to 17th century England and today involves dozens of machine-tuned instruments. A set of 49 bells with four octaves costs upwards of $15,000.
The bells’ sizes vary, from a petite seven-ounces to an 18-pounder that requires two hands to ring. The Community Church’s largest bell has an interior diameter of 9.5 inches. Each are cared for individually.
“It’s not like packing up a flute,” Bowen said. “Every bell has its own case.”
She said shiny brass and the ringers’ hand movements make it a visually attractive form of music.
Yet ringing a song involves more than the snapping of the wrist. Hitting the bell with a mallet adds percussion. Striking the bell onto a foam-covered table creates a staccato tone.
Every white-gloved ringer holds at least two bells though some, like Barbara Scharringhausen, play four at once. A member of the Park Ridge Community Church ensemble, Scharringhausen has rung bells for the past three decades. She formerly led a senior women’s group of ringers called the Silver Bells.
The church ensemble’s age range currently spans six decades. Bowen recruited the choir’s youngest member, 25-year-old Lauren Lakomek, after learning she played hand chimes in elementary school.
Lakomek played with the choir during breaks from college and now regularly performs with the group.
“You can’t get away,” she said.
Others began ringing only recently, like John Sasser who sings in the church’s choir. He strolled into the sanctuary three years ago curious about the bell music, took a turn at ringing and has stuck with the ensemble ever since.
Nancy Fabisch didn’t read music before she began learning the piano and handbell a few years ago.
“You don’t say no to something and you try something new,” explained Siena.
Bowen, a longtime Park Ridge Community Church parishioner, began ringing when the church acquired its first set of bells in the early 1980s. Though she doesn’t own her own set of bells, they are always around her: she has clothing, jewelry and Christmas decorations featuring her beloved bells.
“I have more bells than you could shake a stick at,” Bowen said. “It becomes a way of life.”