St. Olaf Handbell Choir returns from Annual Tour

Upon return from a three-day tour around the Midwest, the St. Olaf Handbell Choir performed its home concert in Urness Recital Hall on March 9. The tour, an annual event for the bell choir, included stops in Austin, Minn., Omaha, Neb. and Waverly, Iowa.

The students traveled in buses and slept in the homes of their patrons. When asked how she would describe the tour, Madelyn Woolums 17, a biology major, said, “It’s really good group bonding. We always feel so much closer to the other ensemble members when we come back from tour.”

This group bonding is important to any handbell choir, as it is a kind of music that requires communication and cohesion among members to create their sound.

“They are very tight. It’s been fun over twenty years to watch it develop. They really have to interact,” Jill Mahr, director of the St. Olaf Handbell Choir and Chapel Ringers, said.

Mahr teaches flute and conducts the handbell choirs at St. Olaf, leads a youth program for handbells at her church and is a member of Handbell Musicians of America. The St. Olaf Handbell Choir was founded in 1983 under the direction of Robert Thompson, taken over by Norman Heitz in 1985, later directed by Karl Zinsmeister and since 1995 has been directed by Mahr. The program has grown to now include three handbell ensembles: the St. Olaf Handbell Choir, the Chapel Ringers and the Manitou Handbell Choir, a student-directed group.

The Manitou Handbell Choir is directed by Gabrielle Sanderson 15, a math and physics major. She spoke highly of the ensemble under her direction.

“They’re a really good group of ringers, and they’re especially good at rhythm,” Sanderson said.

Sanderson is also involved in the handbell quartet on campus, a student group that, upon suggestion from Mahr, began this year with a group of seasoned ringers. The quartet played two songs on the St. Olaf Handbell Choir’s program this year, “Fanfare for an Uncommon Instrument,” a Susan T. Nelson piece that reminisces Aaron Copland’s similarly titled song “Fanfare for a Common Man” and “Roundup,” a brief, upbeat André Previn piece arranged by Erin K. Downey.

In addition to these, the St. Olaf Handbell Choir performed a great variety of music for its concert. Their pieces were diverse in era of composition, genre and style, demonstrating a full range of the musical possibilities for handbells.

From a Bach fugue to a new arrangement of “What a Wonderful World,” the choir exhibited a wide selection of music as well as interesting sound elements incorporated into the concert such as a flute, drums, various kinds of chimes and even a bell tree. “De Profundis,” one of the more contemporary pieces on the program, was written for the St. Olaf Handbell Choir by Jason Krug, and the group premiered it on this tour. The piece used unique ways to make music, including swirling wooden blocks around the bells to produce sound.

“Audiences are always surprised, because they don’t know that handbells can be so versatile,” Sanderson said.

The St. Olaf Handbell Choir also works in the community, doing events such as a biannual children’s concert as well as putting on a concert for a local nursing home. The ensemble has a Christmas concert earlier in the year and a spring concert wherein all three handbell choirs play. In regard to the unique opportunity handbell choir presents, Mahr said, “I think it’s really cool that St. Olaf is a liberal arts school, so students have a chance to experience so many different things.”

For more information on getting involved in the handbell choir, students can contact Mahr at or Sanderson at