Maybe it’s the clear, echoing tones. Maybe it’s the hundreds of years of history. Maybe it’s the motion of shining bronze being lifted and lowered as note follows note.
Whatever it is, there’s just something about the bells.
Mary Fell grasps a handle with each of her black-gloved hands.
“Hands on your bells,” she says, then, “Up.” Bells are lifted to shoulder height as the Tuesday evening rehearsal begins. Fell looks for a second to see if the seven other women are ready. “ And one, two, three …”
A brief pause of silence precedes the familiar tones of “We Three Kings,” and the empty church echoes with music.
“I just love to see the people’s faces … when you start to play and you kind of look up, and people are just enthralled,” said Fell, who has directed the choir for the past five years. “I think it makes people feel very peaceful.”
The Homer United Methodist Church’s Jubilation! Bells is made up of three octaves of bronze handbells — two when they are short on players. Each bell is its own instrument — specifically tuned to a single note and costing anywhere from a couple hundred to several thousand dollars. Players wear gloves to protect the bronze from tarnishing.
The church purchased its first two-octave set of Malmark English handbells in 1983. Keith Wise, who was the pastor at that time, had the idea to look into a bell choir.
A memorial fund had recently been established for longtime members of the church, Bernadine and Vern Mutch, and Wise suggested that some of the fund be used for handbells.
The idea was approved, and Dotty Cline, a member familiar with the instruments, organized their purchase — and teaching people how to play them.
Church members also donated money for bells in honor or memory of loved ones, whose names are inscribed on the handles. A third octave was later added to the set, and a bell choir memorial fund was established in honor of the late Margaret Guldseth, who rang with the choir for many years.
As the founder of the bell choir, Cline directed players for 25 years, adding a youth choir in the fall of 2000. One of her particular contributions was creating a color system to help those who couldn’t read music well. Blue for the bell in your left hand, red for the one in your right, then players just had to count measures and ring on the right color.
Now, when people want to join the choir, it is suggested that they have at least one year of music first. That way they are at least familiar with musical notes and counting measures.
Every year the choir is a little different as people come and go. Male, female, old, young — each one contributing their time and love for the bells.
Lucy Kunkler has been part of the choir for almost five years.
“Bells is something I kind of always wanted to do,” she said, but the timing didn’t work out until she moved to Homer. Now, she plays “D” and “E” with the choir.
“We just have fun,” said Kunkler. “It just seems like there are a lot of people who enjoy the bells.”
Handbells were invented in the early 1700s as a way for church bell ringers to practice — without the entire village having to listen.
Over time, the handbells became their own art, and music was written specifically for them.
The Jubilation! Bells choir has shared their music in Homer at the senior center, the Nutcracker Fair and most Sundays at the Methodist Church between Christmas and Easter. They also have traveled to Kenai and Seward to play.
“We all enjoy what we do,” said Kunkler, as the rehearsal ends and bells are returned to their cases. “It’s just a lot of fun.”
The Jubilation! Bells choir will perform tonight, Dec. 24, beginning at 6:30 p.m. at the Homer United Methodist Church. The Christmas Eve service officially begins at 7 p.m.
Toni Ross is a Homer freelance writer.