They produce one of the most distinctive and pleasing sounds to the ear. The mellifluous tones of hand bells and chimes are a regular part of the music ministry at many churches, like Wesley United Methodist Church in Bloomington.
“Here at Wesley, we’ve had hand bells since the 1960s. I always say it’s a fun way of serving God with our hands and our hearts,” said Gail Joslin who has directed three hand bell choirs at Wesley for nearly 30 years.
Bells of all sorts have a long history in organized religion. For centuries, across Europe bells were used to toll time -- and call people to prayer.
“Going way, way back, bells were used as a way of inviting people to worship back when little bells were on the skirts of the priests walking to church," Joslin said.
"Over time, as the buildings got bigger, they started putting the bell on the side of the building to invite people to church. Over time, they put the bells in steeples.” Hand bells, popular in England, were introduced to the U.S. in the early 1900s.
“A big part of it is it’s something you can do without any musical background at all," Goslin said. "It’s a matter of learning the counting and techniques of ringing the bells, the different sounds the bells make … The attraction is that so many people can do it, especially people who want to be involved in church and don’t like to sing. I’m one of them.”
Many hand bell choirs use both bells and chimes. Bells are made of bronze, are heavier and more expensive. Chimes are long, flat instruments, made of aluminum. They are generally lighter in weight and have an external clapper.
“They give a mellower sound," Joslin said of chimes. "If you think of your grand staff, and if you are piano player, you know what middle C is. It lies between bass clef and treble clef. C5 is middle C. Then the octaves go higher and lower."
Hand bells, Joslin said, produce more of a vibration and "a brighter sound."
Wesley’s bell ringers range in age from nine to 70 years old. On a Wednesday afternoon, third, fourth and fifth graders file into a rehearsal room. Joslin has them practice a piece called "Water Music."
“As a director, my passion is to bring out the emotion and meaning of the music we’re playing, instead of having people just stand and hold a bell in their hand and ring it when they’re supposed to, and stop it when they’re supposed to stop it. I take it to the next level and I say ring louder when we want to be more joyful and softer when we want to be more prayerful. I like to teach people to go beyond just the basics and create art work.”
Even after a long day of school, these young choir members are enthusiastic about rehearsing.
"You get to play lots of music and it’s usually very pretty. I like to play it," said nine-year-old Emily Masters.
“My favorite thing about praying chimes is you get to praise God and at the end of the year you have the opportunity to play bells, said Austin Oganovich, 11.
Many of the children, like Killian Boyd, who is also 11, want to learn to play other instruments as well.
“You get the opportunity to play an instrument most people don’t get the chance of playing," Boyd said. "And it really introduces you to the percussion and if you are in third or fourth grade, this could inspire you to choose percussion when you are choosing your instrument.”
Joslin says chimes are a fun way for children to learn about music. But the instruments are expensive. A two octave set of chimes cost $1,200 to $1,300. A beginning set of bells is $5,000 to $7,000 and more elaborate sets cost considerably more.
“It is an investment because you have the tables to rest the bells on and you have to have padding. We have four inch pads. Then there's the music stands. And the music is getting more expensive. You used to be able to pay $2.50 cents for a piece of music, now it’s $4 or $5 apiece," and each choir member needs to have each piece of music.
Joslin also plays bells professionally with the group Bells in Motion, whose signature song is the swing classic, “In The Mood.”
“Bell music is written in all different genres. There is traditional, sacred music and a lot of it is different arrangements of same song. You can have a jazzy arrangement of “Come Christians, Join to Sing,” and more straight, serious arrangement of it," she said.
There is also a large world of bell music that is not sacred but is secular. Name a musical, “Little Mermaid” there’s a [hand bell] score for it, “Pirates of the Caribbean, there’s a score for that. “Les Miserables,” there’s a score.”
Most hand bells are now manufactured in U.S, by two companies Malmark Bell Craftsmen and Schulmerich Bells, both in Pennsylvania. Joslin says despite the expense, the popularity of bells is spreading.
“There is an organization called Hand bell Musicians of America. The country is divided into areas. Ours is Area 8, which is Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska. And when there’s an area festival, there is probably 500 hand bell ringers all meeting at the same time.”
Joslin says anyone who wants to know more about hand bells or learn how to play them can stop by Wesley United Methodist any time.