First Church of Christ handbell choir celebrates 30 years in Suffield

By Jennifer Coe - ReminderNews
Suffield - posted Wed., Jun. 5, 2013
A graduating senior, Katie Silva rings a set of the largest bells in the youth handbell choir in the concert on June 2. Photos by Jennifer Coe.
A graduating senior, Katie Silva rings a set of the largest bells in the youth handbell choir in the concert on June 2. Photos by Jennifer Coe.

For 30 years, the handbell choir at First Church of Christ, Congregational has been more than a passion for its director, Janet Banks. “Passionate is not the word,” she laughed. “It is one of the joys of my life.”

The group celebrated its 30th anniversary at a June 2 concert. Despite blazingly hot temperatures, the musicians wore their black gloves and the bells were rung, by both the youth and the adult choirs.

A family affair, the youth handbell choir began more than three decades ago when Banks’ daughter picked up her first set of bells. Anne Banks was an original member of the Campanelli (youth choir) and after graduation became a member of the Mt. Holyoke College handbell choir. Now assisting her mother to teach and lead the group, Anne has become Janet’s right-hand woman, so-to-speak. “For 22 years she has come to two rehearsals a week,” said Janet. “She is an amazing asset.”

“When it happens right and it all gels together, it’s incredible,” said Anne. “It just lifts your spirits. For me personally, it’s just an enormous and joyful challenge.”

Janet herself was introduced to the bells after a casual comment was made by a singer she knew and respected. According to Anne, the bells had been gifted to the church sometime in the 1960s and had been collecting dust in a closet when they were drawn out again in 1978. Once Janet saw their beauty, she decided would dive in help young people learn to play.

That was 1983. The Campanelli (youth choir) began that year and later on the Sonotori (adult choir) followed in its footsteps.

The handbell choirs regularly participate in the First Church’s services, enhancing the worship music. The choirs boast more than 96 past and present members who have played throughout the years with the organization, many of whom were in the audience on June 2.

“Some of them know that when they are in sixth grade they can join,” said Anne. “There are a lot of dynasties, too - families who have multiple ringers. It’s not even just the siblings, it’s the parents, too,” she said.

“Usually we play from the loft,” said Janet. “People can’t really see us.” She said that congregation members close their eyes and just listen to the music. “People tend to really concentrate on what the music is all about,” she said.

The kids also enjoy being a part of the youth choir. “I think is that it gives a very different experience to them,” said Anne. “It’s an exceptionally different instrument. It’s a unique challenge – a different kind of ensemble.”

The varied repertoire includes classic hymns, fun spirituals and classical pieces.

Presently, the youth choir boasts 11 ringers from sixth grade to 12th grade. They meet once a week for one hour to practice pieces which challenge their music reading capabilities, as well as the special techniques only used by bell ringers.

Janet has nothing but praise for the kids in her choir and is obviously energized by being with them. “I don’t believe it when I hear people saying young people today are an absolute mess,” she said. “We should treasure them.”

“The kids are all there at rehearsal and they are dedicated – they take a lot of pride in it,” said Anne.

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