“Aren’t you a little old for that?”
For more than a dozen years now, that statement (it’s never really been a question) has become a running joke between my mom and I as we recap over the phone what we’ve each being doing over the course of a week.
Years ago, when I first mentioned that I had joined a handbell choir at a local church and that I was off to practice or had already had the hour-long rehearsal earlier in the week, my mom would ask the question, punctuated with a dismissive sniff carrying a whiff of exasperation over a string of misplaced priorities and misspent time. If one could hear eye rolling, it would have come through on those calls loud and clear.
I bought my mom an “I (heart) handbells” bumper sticker, and I tease that she practically has an allergic reaction to handbell music.
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She’s not alone. After Tuesday night rehearsals or on the occasional Sunday when the choir rings an anthem during the service, my husband has been known to call me his favorite ding-a-ling.
Funny. Such a comedian.
Say that sometime when I have a bell in hand, and don’t be surprised if I smack you alongside the head with a piece of brass weighing nearly a pound and a half — that is if I hit you with the D in my right hand. It will be slightly less if you get banged by the kinder, gentler E in my left.
I will be the first to admit that I haven’t always had a reverence or respect for the bells.
Not to mix denominations, but because I am a baptized Orthodox, Presbyterian college-educated Methodist, my first practice I strolled in with an “I’ve played the piano forever and can read music” chutzpah.
I then spent a few humbling weeks playing the smallest of the bells, light sweet rings that hover in what I call the stratosphere — notes floating unethered, high above the treble clef, well beyond reach of those nice, orderly lines and spaces that define the realm of this most average pianist.
I also was amazed at how much concentration it took to focus on just four notes —the two I was assigned that conveniently were side by side in the scale along with their accompanying sharps and flats. Four bells. Two hands. And I literally had my hands full.
It didn’t take the director long to move me down to more familiar ground — D and E just above middle C — which is where I’ve been ever since.
I was feeling pretty good about that until I was Googling to find out the weight of those particular bells for this column and came across this in a handbell blog: “As an aside, D5 E5 is an excellent position to reserve for beginning ringers.” Hey, that’s my position. Still. After 12 years. Ouch.
I’ve joked that being in the choir is my stress relief, particularly those times when my bell-ringing resembles a musical version of “Whack a Mole,” far more amusement-park game than church sanctuary anthem, raucous rather than reverent.
Then there are the times my mind wanders. Several years ago, we played a very long song that dragged on about five minutes too long. In my mind, the composer had written and dedicated it for a wedding nowhere near central Pennsylvania. It reminded me of the kind of wedding in which the bride and groom had cast a wide net, snaring family, friends and foe alike. I narrated under my breath as we lumbered through it.
“Here comes the eighth bridesmaid ... followed by the ninth bridesmaid twice removed. Next up, the fourth junior bridesmaid, now the fifth. Make room for flower girl one and flower girl two.” It might not have been my favorite song but, to my ears, it was quite a sight of matrimonial ceremonial blight.
Pity my director (since, as you can probably tell, I’m not very, uh, “directable”). This week it was a song about creation that doesn’t sound, at least to me, what creation would sound like. Instead of the making of the heavens and earth, I was hearing Bolshevik revolution with a little of the realms of the elves and hobbits from “The Lord of the Rings” thrown in. Hard enough to imagine let alone listen to.
And yet we stopped and started and ran through sections again and again, and the revolution passed, and it did start to sound like maybe something was indeed beginning anew.
“Aren’t you a little old for this?”
When I first started playing, I liked to kid myself into thinking that I was actually one of the younger ringers in the group. Those days are long gone.
I play because after 12 years I still find that concentrating on two notes throughout a four-minute anthem is challenging and harder than it looks.
I play because I like to think that I can ring — or maybe that should be “wring” — a little bit of music out of that piece of brass whether I’m striking it or swinging it, tapping it with a mallet or rubbing a dowel rod around its lip and making it sing.
I play because when you bring the 14 of us together we sometimes, not always, but often enough, turn brassy notes into something sublime.
Do you hear what I hear?
There is music in the air.
And it is well with my soul.