Handbell choirs ring out the year in concert

How do you know if someone is a member of the St. Olaf Choir? They tell you! How do you know if someone is a member of the St. Olaf Handbell Choir? Wait, we have one of those? Indeed, established in 1965, the St. Olaf Handbell Choir is one of the Hill’s hidden gems, and as they exemplified at their concert this past Sunday, they are ready to rumble. In an exclusive interview, Emma Haput ’16 and Stephanie Lewis ’16 provided some insight on their experience as members of the group.

Manitou Messenger: How did you become interested in handbells?

Emma Haput: A lot of handbell choirs start in churches, and I grew up in a church that had one. I joined in ninth grade, and I have been playing ever since. I was looking for a college that had a great music program, and I was happy to find a school that had a great handbell choir in addition to the other musical ensembles.

Stephanie Lewis: I started playing when I was in third grade. We transferred to a new church that had several handbell choirs. My mom already played handbells and wanted to get us involved, and I have been playing ever since.

MM: What is the most difficult part of playing in a handbell choir?

EH: It is definitely a community. In a choir there are a lot of people singing the same parts – sopranos, altos and so on. In handbells, you are responsible for your own notes. If you aren’t at rehearsal, your part doesn’t get played. It requires a lot of coordination and teamwork.

SL: It really is a unique dynamic. A handbell choir is the only instrument which requires a team to play it. You have to be able to really read one another to play next to each other. The bells are like keys on a keyboard, and you have to be prepared to work in sync with everyone.

MM: What makes handbell performance a valuable art?

SL: Handbells are one of the more visual instruments to play. You can see each note being performed. It is a really under-appreciated art because it has pretty much been exclusive to churches for most of modern history. Handbell choirs are now beginning to incorporate new movements and instruments into their performances, and we have played some really great modern pieces this year.

EH: We have rung everything from transcriptions of organ music to contemporary songs. It is a really versatile art. Handbell choirs today are playing everything from church hymns to Lady Gaga songs.

MM: What are some of the challenges of being in such a competitive handbell choir?

SL: It requires a lot more time outside. We had to take home our music and practice rhythms. The pieces that we play are so much harder than people understand. You have to really have a grasp on music and counting and the techniques.

EH: Sometimes there are pieces where we ring chimes and bells, and there are notes that you physically can’t get. We have to coordinate those complex situations with each other. I might not be able to reach it during this measure, but maybe you don’t have any notes during this measure and you can help me out. It requires a lot of planning and a lot of trust.

SL: We finally have our own room and that has made things really nice. Last year we had to go into a classroom, push all of the chairs aside, set up all of the equipment, practice, take everything down and reset the classroom. When they were looking into setting up the plans for the Undercroft, the architect was all for setting up a bell closet for us. Now that we have our own room, it is a lot easier for people to come in and practice on their own. There is always room for other musical groups, and now there is one for us, too.

MM: What are some of the most interesting things the St. Olaf Handbell Choir did this year?

EH: We went to a handbell festival in Sioux Falls in the fall. We took two of the St. Olaf vans and went on a little road trip together. We spent the whole weekend working with 15 or 20 choirs playing bells, leading workshops and participating in classes. At the end of the festival we played a song together with everyone who was at the festival. It was an amazing experience.

SL: Yeah, the festival was really fun, and we go on tour every year. We also have a biannual kids’ concert. Last year we ended with a song from “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and we brought in a really great Jack Sparrow impersonator. It was kind of distracting having him run around and steal our bells, but the kids loved it.

MM: As the school year comes to an end, what are you looking forward to most for next year?

SL: We have a really great group this year, and we are so lucky to have such fantastic people with so much experience. Collectively, we have over 150 years of experience represented in our group! It is going to be sad to say goodbye to the seniors, but we are excited for our choir to keep getting better and to expand our repertoire.

If you missed out on the concert last Sunday, fear not. The St. Olaf Handbell Choir will play during the Boe Chapel service this Sunday, May 9.


Photo courtesy of Jill Mahr