By Seth Daniel
Beyond the soothing sounds of music, one of the true joys for those making music is working with other musicians to come together to play one harmonious piece.
That’s the case with a symphony or a philharmonic or a chorus, but nowhere is it more pronounced than with a handbell choir, where – in the case of the Back Bay Ringers – 17 individual musicians come together to form on unified instrument.
“It really is the ability of getting 17 people to play as an ensemble and working out all the the little nuances in a piece together and becoming one,” said Griff Gall, the founding Artistic Director of the Back Bay Ringers and a South End resident since 2003. “It’s like a great puzzle.”
That harmonious effort by numerous different bell ringers also speaks to Executive Director, who is also part of the 17-person ensemble.
“It’s a very unique experience,” she said this week, following the group’s sold out Christmas concert last Friday, Dec. 16, at the First Church in Boston (Back Bay). “Everyone is independent and of themselves. It’s like putting tape on the keys of a piano and playing in unison. If you’re gone, it matters. If you haven’t practiced, it matters. No one stands out; everyone is in unison and acting together.”
Handbell choirs are typically made up of 14 to 20 people, though Gall said there are no restrictions. Each member is assigned to play a certain part of the notes with differing bells – picking up and ringing each bell at the appropriate time and in the appropriate rhythm. The coordination takes time, practice and talent, and Gall and Matson said the Back Bay Ringers have auditions and have been together for some time.
They are all on the same page, Matson said, so they often don’t need to work very hard to know what one another is doing.
“They are expected to take music home and to practice the rhythms and the programs and how to work out the problems so that when we come together in rehearsal on a Monday night, we can focus on making music,” said Gall.
Gall started the group in 2003, having previously conducted a handbell choir at Trinity Church in Back Bay. He started the Back Bay Ringers as the nation’s first handbell choir dedicated to members and friends of the LGBT community. That came after he developed a liking for the handbells when he was a freshman in college, at New Jersey’s Westminster Choir College. The handbells were the only instrument ensemble at the college, and after hearing them played for the first time, he decided to give them a try.
He “rang” during his four years at Westminster, and then stepped away.
Upon moving to Boston, he picked it back up and has continued every since. In addition to the Ringers, he’s a music teacher in Danvers and directs a small handbell choir there. He also directs a handbell choir at Salem State University as well.
For Matson, she started “ringing” at her church when her children were young as an interesting new pastime. She hasn’t stopped since.
“It’s really been quite a journey,” she said. “I’ve been ringing for 20 years, but have been with the Back Bay Ringers for about 10 years, starting here in 2007. We have had great leadership through previous executive directors and the board and artistic talent from Griff and each ringer. We’ve grown at a nice pace. This year has been an exciting season.”
The season has included a whirlwind tour for the holiday season this month, with sell-out crowds in Framingham, Rockport and Back Bay’s First Church. A smaller ensemble of Ringers were also selected to kick off the holiday season in a presentation with Mayor Martin Walsh in late November.
Then, on Dec. 7, the Ringers were chosen to perform two songs in a special fundraising concert with the Boston Pops, called the Company Christmas.
“The whole experience was humbling for the group and personally for me too,” said Matson. “They were complete professionals.”
Gall said the Ringers have noticed that their appeal is growing, as is the appreciation for the art of the handbell choir. He noted the three sellout shows this December, and said as they travel to places outside of Boston year after year, they notice that they’ve developed a following. Crowds have also become more diversified, he said, and gave a lot of credit to ArtsBoston for helping to promote the Ringers.
“For us this season, we as an organization were really surprised by how many people were coming to a handbell concert for the first time,” he said. “There was a smaller amount of people at our concerts when we first started – other handbell ringers and members, but now we’re really starting to see people who are looking for a handbell concert and group…We’re excited about that.”
The group will now take some time off to enjoy the holiday season and rest up for their Spring Season. Practices begin in January, and they will be gearing up for Boston Handbell Festival at the Old South Church in May.
Additionally, they will be performing a benefit concert in June at First Church to fund the LGBT Asylum foundation of Worcester. That foundation provides safe harbor to LGBT individuals from third world countries who are in danger.