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Handbell directors and players at PAM’s Worship & Music Conference discuss what it takes to make their joyful noise

‘It gets in your blood’ says Co-Director Brian Childers

by Rich Copley and Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

MONTREAT, North Carolina — The playing of handbells “is not a one-size-fits-all musical idiom,” said Sandy Eithun, who’s co-directing handbell choirs this week during the Presbyterian Association of Musicians’ Worship & Music Conference being held at Montreat Conference Center. “There are places for everyone, and we need everyone.”

Eithun is on the faculty of Holy Family Conservatory of Music in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Her co-director, Brian Childers, a composer, conductor and clinician who’s on staff at Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, like Eithun put handbell choir members through productive practice sessions throughout the conference. At the beginning of one practice last week, Childers had 60 or so handbell ringers stretch their arms and roll their shoulders. They turned to the right to briefly massage their neighbor’s shoulders, then kneaded those shoulders with gentle karate chops. “Now turn around and get even,” Childers said to laughter.

Conference participants ring handbells during a rehearsal at the 2023 Worship & Music Conference. (Photo by Rich Copley)

As the choir rehearsed John Behnke’s “An Expression of Joy,” Childers asked members to mark their music with “two things you can do better. Then I’ll give you 30 others.” He periodically praised their work and offered tips on handbell skills, including a mallet lift and a pluck lift.

“We’re going to do this close to tempo,” he said near the end of rehearsing that piece. “This is an opportunity for growth.”

During another selection, Childers asked the class to “make a big deal of the forte but make a really big deal of the piano.”

Later, Childers said the joy he derives conducting handbell choirs is “seeing the joy it brings to others, the look they get when they get something they hadn’t gotten before.” When they all learn together the tempo or dynamic Childers is seeking, “the hair on my arm stands up. Kids especially are so expressive. It’s neat to see.”

Brian Childers, handbell choir co-director, leads a rehearsal during the 2023 Worship & Music Conference. (Photo by Rich Copley)

“Handbells are unique,” he said. “It’s an instrument you can play yourself” — skilled ringers can play with up to 15 handbells in front of them, each awaiting their turn — “but to do something like this, you have to work with others, and it has to be a group effort.”

Childers called that requirement “a microcosm of church — bearing one another’s burdens, working together.” On occasion, handbell players have to turn each other’s pages or ring their neighbor’s bell, he noted.

“It’s a reason people are passionate” about playing the shiny instruments, he said. “You can’t get this anywhere else. People grow up singing in choirs, but handbells are more specialized.”

Childers fondly recalls the first set of handbells his father purchased. “He would take his group to festivals,” Childers recalled of his childhood. “I was under the table, soaking in that sound. It gets in your blood.”

Watch videos recorded during the first week of PAM’s Worship & Music conference here.

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