If it's Wednesday night in northern Harford County, you can be certain that the Carillons, the Glory Ringers and the Chimers youth handbell choirs are gathered at Bethel Presbyterian Church to practice ringing music -- one note at a time.
From September through the end of this month, about 30 youngsters in grades two through 10 forgo sports and other recreational activities so that they won't miss the weekly handbell choir rehearsals at the church on Route 23 in Madonna.
"Instead of singing, we ring," said Nancy Rose, 43, of White Hall, who co-directs the choirs with Lynn Kiniry, 43, of Madonna.
"It's a good lesson in life," said Mrs. Rose, the bookkeeper for her family's Clear Meadow Farm. "When you make a commitment to something, you keep it."
"There's a lot of responsibility on each individual in a handbell choir," said Mrs. Kiniry, a nurse. "Each person is assigned certain notes. If he or she isn't there, those notes are missing."
English handbells are brass with sturdy, black plastic handles and range in size from delicate to hefty. The largest emit low, deep notes; the smallest produce high, light tones.
Choir members learn to hold the bell up as though it is filled with water. Circle the arm away from the body, flick the wrist, and the clapper strikes the side once to produce a single note.
Each choir member, or ringer, has several bells and plays only a few notes from each musical selection. It takes all of the ringers to produce an entire song.
"It's a unique way of playing music," Mrs. Kiniry said.
A week from today, 20 of her more experienced ringers will join youngsters from Highland Presbyterian Church in Street and Jarrettsville United Methodist Church for a "mini mass ring" of three selections at Bethel Presbyterian.
"It's a time to get together and a time to rejoice," said Mrs. Kiniry's daughter, Alli, 14. "It's something different. Not many churches have it."
L "It's fun and it's challenging," said her brother, Drew, 11.
"You get to meet new people," added Greg Rose, 11, whose mother, Nancy, started the choir in 1986 with Mrs. Kiniry.
This will be the second year that the three churches have combined youth handbell choirs in what organizers hope will become an annual tradition. The youngsters will play 120 handbells.
"I love the music of the handbells," said Laurie Falkner, 43, of Street, choir director at Highland Presbyterian Church who recently organized a 12-member choir to participate in the service. "It's a very different musical experience. It's much more of a team effort."
Her choir includes her daughter, Julie, 13. "It's really neat to hear all of the music come together," Julie said.
About 20 youngsters in grades three through 12 practice with the handbell choirs at Jarrettsville United Methodist Church from fall through spring. Six will participate in the service next Sunday.
"The benefit to all these kids is to . . . discover that there are other kids who do service for the Lord and enjoy it," said Sandy Pietrowicz, organist and music director.
Her daughter, Kara, is looking forward to the event. "I like the music and I like to be with my friends," the 12-year-old said.
Using techniques like the tower swing and the circle swing, choir members vary their sound and create visual interest. Bell handles can be interlocked to form a bell tree that is played with mallets. A ringer can play two notes separately or together while holding two bells in one hand.
Wearing white blouses or shirts, dark skirts or pants and white or black gloves, the boys and girls participate in the worship service about once a month.
"We try to downplay the performing part," Mrs. Kiniry said. "We are there to enhance the worship service. We want the children to focus on the ring as an expression of their faith."