Dayton area handbell choirs provide peaceful celebrations of the holidays

Natasha Baker

In the early 1700s bell towers were used as a way to notify a village of all sorts of events. From time for church to fires and births, change ringers, as they were called, would use complicated rhythms to alert locals of the goings on in the community. However, learning and practicing those complicated rhythms could be quite annoying to the families that lived close to the towers.

“The first handbells were developed to practice tower bell ringing in a less disturbing way,” says Margaret Dill, director of the Sinclair Community College Handbell Choir.

Typically made of a mix of copper and bronze with a rubber clapper and leather handle, today’s handbells are tuned and can weigh as little as seven ounces or as much as 18 pounds!

With only two hands, ringers are limited to how many bells they can hold and play. The traditional method is to hold one bell in each hand, though Dill says several of her players can play with two and sometimes three bells in each hand.

Dayton has a fair share of talented handbell choirs, many of whom are offering holiday concerts to help you get into the spirit and celebrate the season with your family.

Downtown Ringers
One of the most well-known bell choirs in the area is at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Dayton. Started 36 years ago by John Neeley, associate pastor of music, the church now has two bell choirs—adults and teens (7-12 grades).

While it is standard for a bell choir to include a set number of 13 ringers, the church has an open door policy and has featured as many as 15 at a time. With weekly rehearsals during their season from September to May, all of the ringers are well versed in their craft and produce powerful and inspiring music.

On Friday, Dec. 14, at noon, the choir will host the community at a carol sing including several pieces by the bell choirs and a sing-a-long of Christmas carols. The event will include a narrator to provide some insight about the carols and for just $6 you can also have a lovely lunch served by church members. Beautiful music and a hot lunch all in the span of a normal lunch break right downtown!

Westminster also features its choirs at the annual Service of Lessons and Carols on Sunday, Dec. 16. The event is a traditional British service and will include scripture and music from all of its voice and bell choirs. The service starts at 10 a.m. Of course, the church also offers Christmas Eve services including a family service at 4 p.m. and a 10 p.m. candlelit service featuring its teen ringers.

According to Brent Manley, music associate for the church and director of both bell choirs, families make participation in the choir not only a commitment, but a priority. “We have families from all around the Dayton community. We work together with them to ensure that participation is fun and as convenient as possible, but ultimately the families really want their teens to participate.”

The teens get to perform once a month during their season at traditional Sunday services. “It gives them something to look forward to,” says Manley.

Community Ringers
The Sinclair Handbell Choir is comprised of 13 auditioned musicians and has been under the direction of Margaret Dill since 2000. Dill started her career with Sinclair Handbell Choir as a ringer in 1990 just after the choir was created at the college in 1989. Dill says Sinclair’s choir is made up of mostly community members.

“Our students move through to graduation in around two years,” says Dill. “We have to replace them frequently.”

Dill says that the bells in Sinclair’s choir cover a five-octave range, which means that most ringers cover two to three bells in any given piece of music. “Although I have a bass ringer who covers as many as eight to 10,” says Dill. “We call her a bell superhero!”

The handbell choir will kick off its holiday concerts at the United Christian Church on Dec. 1 at 7 p.m. It will then partner with the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra for concerts on Dec. 7 and 8 at the Schuster Center for Performing Arts. It will perform again on Dec. 9 at the Lebanon United Methodist Church at 2 p.m.

Area Church Ringers
While the Slifers Presbyterian Church in Farmersville will celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2019, the handbell choir didn’t get its start until the 1990s. Thanks to a gift of handbells in memory of a long-time, music-loving member, the choir now has an average of 10 devoted members.

“Making music is a stress-reliever for me,” says Holly Michael, a member of the Slifers bell choir. “I enjoy the opportunity to participate in our worship services and our choir has a fun and relaxed approach.” 

Michael says playing bells is easier if you read music, but that most ringers can mark their notes on the music sheets. She also says that many of its members play up to four or more bells in a piece. To hear a ring from this area choir plan to attend its Christmas Eve services.

Just south of town in West Chester you will find the Crestview Ringers of the Crestview Presbyterian Church. In existence for over 35 years, the Crestview Ringers has the standard 13 players and also plays five octaves of bells. According to its director, Rodney Barbour, handbell choirs and churches go, well, hand-in-hand.

“Handbells are an accessible way for a number of folks to become involved in the music program of the church,” says Barbour. “Church is about community and a bell choir quickly becomes a family working together for a common goal.”

Barbour says that though ringing can become intricate it mostly is a comfortable, easier way for the novice to professional musician to successfully participate. The Crestview Ringers focuses on leading worship in regularly scheduled services at Crestview. It will lead the worship and Christmas music on Sunday, Dec.16.