In a back room at Lakewood’s Little Church on the Prairie, there’s something unusual going on. Fourteen handbell ringers stare earnestly at their music, with chimes pealing out chords on top, a bass riff on the big low bells and a cheerful chord pattern in the middle. Suddenly, everyone puts down their bells and jumps a half-step to the right. They pick up the bells a half-tone higher than before and the whole piece abruptly modulates. Meanwhile, the conductor is narrating a text about Snoopy’s World War I Christmas over a recorded snare drum.
This is not your average Christmas handbell piece. But then, Tacoma’s Rainier Ringers ensemble, playing concerts this week and next, has a new goal — to go beyond your average bell choir.
“One of the conversations I had coming in as director is that this group wanted to move to the next level, like (Seattle’s) Bells of the Sound,” explains director Ron Mallory, who started with the 18-year-old ensemble in 2012. “I spent the first two years getting to know them and stretching them a little. Now we have a large quantity of music that’s more difficult, with new techniques.”
Those techniques are some that bell choirs around the world are exploring, as the instrument gets better known, better played and attracts better composers. In some of the music the Rainier Ringers will be playing in their upcoming Christmas concerts in Lacey and Tacoma, ringers do everything from syncopated mallet chords to the “singing bell” sound made by gliding a wooden dowel around the rim of the bell. There are jazz pieces that have the upper bells sounding like a 1970s vibraphone tune, pieces that include foot stomping and facial comedy, and “Snoopy’s Christmas,” featuring Mallory’s WWI text and the unusual technique of ringers moving up the scale key by key, instead of sticking with the same bells throughout the piece. Some pieces even include other instruments played by choir members, such as flute or percussion, and the choir recently joined two other Seattle bell choirs for their first-ever multigroup performance.
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“It’s hard, but you’re good!” says Mallory after a run-through of the vibes piece breaks down in laughter. Then he takes that section again: Part of the challenge of playing bells is to have a single melody be expressive (and in time) despite each player taking only one or two notes of it.
61 handbells, and 61 chimes, played by 14 ringers
The other way to becoming a more professional ensemble, says Mallory, is the way you perform. He’s focusing intently on aspects such as picking up and putting down bells together, even smiling at the audience. The group recently produced its first CD, “Christmas Traditions.”
“At a concert, people enjoy watching as well as listening,” he says.
Finally, the Ringers want to start telling stories as well as ringing bells. This Christmas concert, instead of randomly assembling holiday tunes, connects pieces thematically: “Snoopy’s Christmas” comes after “Charlie Brown Christmas” (set in World War II) and segues straight into a bell-led singalong of the wartime favorite “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
The whole concert, in fact, has a theme: “Worst Christmas Ever,” inspired by jokes among the choir when asked to smile instead of frowning in concentration. It includes humorous twists like “Christmas Misfits,” “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”
We want to be a group that tells stories through concerts.
Ron Mallory, Rainier Ringers director
“Other groups play, then the director talks, then they play again,” says Mallory. “We want to be a group that tells stories through concerts. This concert is designed to be a (whole) experience.”
And is it fun?
“Yeah!” laughs ringer Anastacia Caswell, during a brief rehearsal break.
“It’s a chance to try new things and see what works,” says Mallory.
Rainier Ringers: “Worst Christmas Ever!”
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday (Dec. 11).
Where: Lacey Presbyterian Church, 3045 Carpenter Road SE, Lacey.
Admission: By donation.
Rainier Ringers: “Worst Christmas Ever!”
Saturday: 7 p.m., Tacoma Community College auditorium, 6501 S. Mildred St., Tacoma. $10 adults; $8 seniors, students; and $25 family.
Dec. 19: 1 p.m., Museum of Glass, 1801 Dock St., Tacoma. Free with museum admission, $15 adults; $12 senior, student and military; $5 ages 6-12; and free for 5 and younger.