The handbell ringers are an eclectic group coming from all parts of Harrow and beyond to join together for the joy of making music. Some of us are singers or play other instruments, and can read music, but being able to read music is not a requirement to ring handbells. Although we do follow musical scores, we have evolved our own simple colour scheme to enable anyone not totally colour blind to follow the music. To do this we use specially drawn sets of musical scores, each sheet is allocated to a bell or a range of adjacent bells to be rung by one or more people sharing a stand. Just as a choir has sopranos who sing the highest notes, altos, tenors and basses, the ringers’ musical scores are similarly divided into parts which we call a desk. Typically one desk is often shared between two ringers each ringing a bell in each hand. Ringers will move from desk to desk between pieces according to the bells used in each piece.
We have our own convention to distinguish each bell’s note. On each score the musical note of each bell is coloured. so within every piece of music each bell’s note is highlighted by colour and shape. The ringer of the higher bells on each desk follows a red blob which highlights the higher of their two notes and a red circle for the second highest note. The player of the lower two bells at each desk uses green instead. So all a ringer has to do is look for their colour on the score and play accordingly. Other colours are then used for any further notes which may be played at that desk. Having a single instrument for each note means to start with you merely have to be able to wield the bell, and look for your coloured note. The usual musical conventions, length of note, pauses etc are soon picked up.
Once a note is struck you learn to stop it ringing by damping the bell, usually against your shoulder or chest, to prevent the sound interfering with following notes, particularly with the larger bells which resonate much longer. Learners start with one bell, then one in each hand and after a little extra practice it is possible to ring two smaller bells in each hand with ease. Bigger ones present more difficulty of course, but given enough space and organisation quite a number of large heavy bells can be laid out on a table and picked up and put down as required.
As with many churches with tower bells a set of handbells were originally kept in the tower for practicing methods for ringing the tower bells without disturbing the neighbourhood, using the one octave set for tunes, initially for ringing Christmas carols around the local pubs collecting for the Children’s Society. By the early 1980s there was interest in using the bells for more ambitious tunes, and St Mary’s Handbell group was formed under the leadership of John Small who produced many musical arrangements for handbells. Enthusiasm grew and fundraising over the subsequent years raised the money to increase the set to the present 49 bells.
We usually hold an annual supper concert with readings on a new theme each year and regularly play for various small groups as well as taking part in local concerts and church services, especially around Christmas, when we also go carol ringing around the local pubs, collecting for the Children’s Society. The main charity we support at our supper concerts is St Luke’s Hospice, and we also raise money for St Mary’s church.
We invite you to come and have a go at handbells. We meet most Tuesdays at 7.45 p.m. at St Mary’s Church Room (except January & August) and have a lot of fun playing music together! A sense of rhythm is a useful requisite, along with the ability to count up to six in a bar, but otherwise we require no other musical skills. Most people are quite capable of learning to play. Age is no barrier and teenagers and octogenarians can happily ring together each learning from the other.