Every Monday night in a room at Morningstar Lutheran Church, a group of handbell players spend three hours practicing diligently.
The 3-year-old Charlotte Bronze Handbell Ensemble has a director who drives each week from West Virginia and members who commute from Hickory and Davidson. Several years of ringing together is starting to pay off.
“When we gasp internally at the end of a piece, we know something different has happened,” said Ed Tompkins, minister of music at Morningstar Lutheran in Matthews. He also rings with the ensemble and is the group’s assistant director.
Ellen Moretz, the ensemble’s president, plays the lower notes in the choir, which aren’t rung as frequently. That gives her time to listen.
“There are times that I think, ‘Holy Cow, that’s us playing that music,’ ” Moretz said.
Charlotte Bronze began with a conversation between Moretz, who has been ringing handbells since junior high, and Tim Waugh, who retired several years ago after a long career in performance mediums that include handbell, choral and church music.
“Wouldn’t you like to drive to Charlotte once a week?” Moretz asked, half-joking as she suggested that Waugh lead a new handbell group.
“He said, ‘Let’s talk,’ ” Moretz said.
For three years, Waugh has made the three-hour drive to Charlotte every Monday night for rehearsal.
Waugh saw the ensemble as an opportunity to extend his experience and as a creative outlet. Waugh had directed church and school handbell groups, but never a community group.
“This gave me an opportunity to create and develop a group that was totally different from just about every community group in the world,” he said. “It’s the only choir we know of that has two choirs within one.”
Waugh said his commute is not all that unusual. He knows of choir directors and handbell ringers in other states who regularly drive long distances to rehearsals or have even moved to be closer to a choir.
“Handbell ringers are a pretty dedicated bunch,” he said.
Typically, a handbell choir will have 8-12 people who are responsible for up to 12 bells each. Charlotte Bronze has always had more than 20 members, ranging from teenagers to people in their 60s. In concerts, they perform separately and as a large group.
Leaders of Charlotte Bronze say the group has improved remarkably in its three years.
Handbell ringing requires musicians to follow music and ring bells, which play a single note, at exactly the right time. On most other instruments, playing a chord is done by a single musician, while a handbell chord can require three or four musicians to ring bells simultaneously.
Waugh describes it as “total independence and total dependence at the same time. … Members came in with some tremendous musical excellence.”
Waugh said the group has become so cohesive that he can get them started in rehearsal and walk off.
“In my opinion, they are probably one of the most, if not the most, musical group in the country as far as being able to sustain musicality,” he said.
Marty Minchin is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Marty? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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