History of the Memorial Bells Choir
In 1983 Pat Adema’s mother, Mildred Seeley, made the first donation to Williamsville United Methodist Church for a handbell choir in memory of her husband, Wayne. Mrs. Seeley knew how inspiring a bell choir was, and how much Pat and her husband, Alan, enjoyed playing in their choir in Hacketstown, New Jersey. Pat and her mother went to several local churches to investigate purchasing bells for our church. After looking at several different types, it was decided that Schulmerich handbells would be purchased.
At that time, Harriet Herbert was the choir director and she had did not have any experience with bells. So, she bought a book of instructions and learned show to play bells, right along with the choir. Harriet was very enthusiastic and the new choir visited other churches and workshops to learn different techniques. Ann Killian, Ben Atanacio, Rosemary Elliott, Jean Hagensick, Pat Adema, and Edna Cabaltica were charter members. A youth handbell choir was also started at that time. Rex Cabaltica thought of the name “Town Criers.”
The adult choir decided on the name “Memorial Handbell Choir” since all of the money used to purchase the bells had been raised as a memorial to many loved ones. A large “Memorial Bell” was also purchased and engraved with the names of those so honored. This bell is placed on the altar when either of the bell choirs play. The next time the Memorial Bell is displayed, we encourage you to take a few moments to examine it and remember those who are no longer with us.
Ann Killian said she was amazed at how fast the money was raised for the handbells. Originally, the goal had been to purchase two octaves, which is the minimum bells needed for a choir. When the donations were counted, there was enough to purchase three octaves, which includes 37 bells. Currently, these bells are played by 11 choir members.
In 1998, Pat Adema was the first to donate a memorial in memory of her mother, Mildred Seeley, for a set of 37 chimes. Again, the remaining money needed for the chimes was raised very quickly.
When Harriet Herbert left WUMC, Lou Ann Steiner took over as director for a short while before Wendy Amuso and Judy Stafford became our choir directors. Like Harriet, when the chimes were purchased, Wendy and Judy had to learn how they were played before they could teach us. Wendy and Judy spend a great deal of time choosing the music for the choir. They are on several publishers’ mailing lists and are sent samples of the latest music for bells. They examine each piece for technique, degree of difficulty, use of other instruments with the bells, and the appropriateness of each piece with the other elements contained in the weekly services.
Playing the bells is relatively simple, but can also be quite challenging. Handbells and chimes are percussion instruments since they are played by being “struck.” When using the regular technique, ringers make a “C” shape in the air with their arm when ringing the bell, and then bring the bell up to touch the shoulder to damp the sound. There are many other techniques including:
- Table damping - Hitting the bell gently on a foam padded table
- Thumb damping – Placing the thumb on the bell while ringing, then using mallets to strike the bell
- Tower swing – Stepping back from the table, then raising and lowering a ringing bell similar to the “town crier” in days of old
Another technique is to hold two bells in each hand, by intertwining them – ringing one forward and the other to the side by turning your wrist.
The next time the Memorial Bell Choir performs, feel free to look over the handbells and chat with choir members. It is truly an exciting experience to play the bells, and we would love to have you join us. Currently the Memorial Bells rehearse on Thursday evenings at 7:30 p.m. Anyone who can read music is welcome to join. We look forward to seeing you.
- Karen Dickerman