The seven women stood behind a long table. Their shiny brass handbells were arranged in front of them, smallest to largest in size, highest to deepest in notes. Cathy Miles stepped to the music stand, raised her arms and the concert began.
They performed in the auditorium, not the sanctuary. They wore regular street clothes, not clerical robes. Instead of hymns, they rang "Over the Rainbow" and "Amazing Grace." But on a brisk Saturday last month, at Loch Raven United Methodist Church's annual arts festival, its Memorial Handbell Choir showed that the music is enchanting whatever the setting, a distinctive sound like none other.
"People tell us it is beautiful music. They enjoy hearing it. It adds to the worship service," said Miles, a Baltimore City educator who serves as director of the church's handbell choir. The 11-member, all-volunteer group plays at services monthly, September to June.
Handbells, aka English bells, came to this country around 1900. They replicate the sound of English church steeple bells, small portable versions that allowed bell-ringers to practice without disturbing the entire country-side.
It is not unusual for colleges to have handbell choirs or for the percussive instrument to be taught in schools, as a way to learn to read music. The most common use, though, is church choirs, a long-standing tradition for worship and holiday services.
"At least 250,000 people are ringing, and there are 15,000 handbell choirs, still mostly in churches," Mike Keller said. Keller is director of music and worship design at Timonium United Methodist Church and a past national president of the Handbell Musicians of America, formerly known as the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers.
Since the 1990s, handbells have become increasingly popular, according to Keller. Churches throughout the country have choirs. More schools are teaching them. Community choirs, secular groups that perform for the public, sometimes at a professional level with orchestras and in concert halls, are on the rise.
In Carroll County, Westminster Ringers choir spreads handbell music via performances, lessons and workshops. It performs two public concerts a year at Carroll Community College, and by invitation at churches, schools and retirement homes.
Charm City Bronze Handbell Ensemble does the same in metro Baltimore. Beau Lochte formed the community choir in 2013. The group of 10 to 12 ringers from age 9 to senior citizen rehearses weekly in Roland Park and performs in places such as Patterson Park.
"We are taking our music to interesting local places with good acoustics. We perform our music for all," said Lochte, a Towson University graduate with a degree in music composition. A Baltimore City resident, he directs handbell choirs in two city churches.
Loch Raven's Memorial Handbell Choir was formed in 1974 by a music director who believed it would enhance the music, said Miles. One of the reasons she joined the church was because of its music, she said.
"I love it. It's uplifting," said Miles, who knew how to play the saxophone before taking on handbells. "It's not difficult to learn to play, but there are a lot of different techniques," she said.
In handbells, each bell is one note. In a typical handbell choir of 11 musicians, each ringer is assigned two bells. The ringer is responsible for following the music and playing those bells when they appear.
"It's your job to ring those bells exactly on time. To ring and then stop the ringing. You have to fit in with the other ringers," said Keller, of Timonium United Methodist Church. "That's the fun and the challenge of it."
Ringing techniques vary, from the way the wrist is flicked to swinging the arm in an arc, from striking the instrument with a mallet to creating a vibrato sound with a finger. "The sound you want to make depends on the music," Keller said.
Professional composers are writing music for handbells, either alone or with another instruments such as the organ. There are handbell arrangements for Christmas carols and popular songs, including the score of the Disney movie, "Frozen."
Keller's Timonium United Methodist Church has two handbell choirs. The first, named Bells' Bells after the instruments' donor, was formed 20 years ago. Its eight adult ringers, all church members, play at worship services monthly and at Christmas and Easter services.
Keller formed the second handbell choir, Rockin' Ringers, last year, at the request of a parent. "She knew handbells and wanted her two children to learn. They brought friends, plus some church members wanted to learn," Keller said of the nine-ringer group of children and adults, church members and non-members, who play every other month at services.
At Towson United Methodist Church, Doug Hollida, minister of music, said its three handbell choirs, with a total of 22 ringers, were formed several decades ago. They perform at Sunday and Christmas Eve services.
"They give a broad, rich sound. Worshippers say it adds to the service," said Hollida. "One of [our music's] goals is to take us to another place, and handbells will do that."
Central Presbyterian Church's handbell choir was formed in 2003 and has eight players, including Susan Hula, its director. She played in a Silver Spring church's handbell choir before moving to Towson with her family a decade ago.
Because of its size, some ringers handle more than two bells. "While each bell is unique, it's a team effort," said Hula, echoing Keller. "You have to work together to make the sound."
Central Presbyterian's plays for worship services, but it also gives free Christmas concerts for the public, a longtime tradition.
"People in the community know about it. They come an hour beforehand to get seats. It's packed. We often need to bring in extra chairs," Hula said.
Vernon Strawhand has been a Central Presbyterian handbell choir member for eight years. Before then, he played in another church's choir for 15 years. "I am responsible for two or three notes. The other players depend on me. If you get a great piece of music, everything clicks," he said. "It's very exciting."
Bekah Wolf was so intrigued by the handbells' sound that she joined Central Presbyterian's choir eight years ago in order to learn them. "They're easy to play but difficult to play well. It took me a couple of years to get comfortable with them," she said.
At the Christmas public concerts, Wolf said, "The audience applauds. They come up afterwards and tell us how much they enjoyed the bells. It's a joyful, heart-moving sound."
Strawhand agreed. "The reaction from the audience is always positive," he said. "Especially at Christmas, they love to hear the bells."
Central Presbyterian Church's handbell choir will perform free Christmas concerts on Friday, Dec. 11 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Dec. 13 at 3 p.m., at the church, 7308 York Road.
Charm City Bronze Handbell Ensemble will perform a Christmas concert on Tuesday, Dec. 22 at 7:30 p.m., in The Great Hall Theatre, St. Marys Outreach Center, 3900 Roland Ave. It is open to the public with a free-will offering.