Unknown musicians hope their talent will ring a bell

February 15, 2011

By Shelby Lichliter

Erin Hersey (left) and Alice Lewis pose with a few of the bells used by a bell-ringer choir. By Greg Farrar

The most advanced handbell ringers in the country will gather Feb. 24-27 for Distinctly Bronze West, a four-day event held on the Bremerton waterfront at The Kitsap Conference Center.

More than 90 ringers are selected to participate and two local ringers, Alice Lewis and Erin Hersey, from Our Savior Lutheran Church in Issaquah, have been invited for the third year in a row to attend the challenging event.

“I really enjoy playing handbell music. It’s different than playing an instrument just by yourself, because you’re with a whole group of people and it’s kind of like a team,” Hersey said. “Everyone has their set of bells playing together and it takes a lot of coordination.”

Hersey has been playing handbells for 15 years; she began at Our Savior Lutheran by substituting in Lewis’ choir. Hersey enjoyed ringing so much that she decided to permanently join the choir, and has now been ringing there for the past seven years.

Lewis has been the handbell director at Our Savior Lutheran for 26 years. In that time, she has grown the size of the handbell set at the church from three octaves to five-plus.

Lewis said the creativity is what she most enjoys about ringing handbells.

“There are a lot of different ways of making sounds with the bells, and oftentimes people who have never heard them before are awestruck about what they are hearing,” she said.

While both Lewis and Hersey are seasoned ringers, their acceptance to perform at Distinctly Bronze West is an honor. The first year they applied, they had to rigorously evaluate themselves based on their own experiences and levels of ability in every ringing area. They also had to submit two letters of recommendation, from people who best knew their ringing abilities. They said they are excited to have been invited back for a third year.

While participating in Distinctly Bronze West, Lewis and Hersey will have the opportunity to perform on the largest sets of handbells available, playing music that demands artistry and musicality. They have been given 11 pieces of music to learn and will practice with other ringers in the Seattle area prior to attending.

The event itself is exhausting and invigorating, as participants spend Thursday afternoon through early Sunday afternoon rehearsing, Lewis said.

“It is really intense. We have nonstop rehearsal starting at 8:30 in the morning,” Hersey said. “Your brain gets fried from having to concentrate.”

They rehearse for hours to perfect the pieces for the culminating concert, which is held on Sunday at 4 p.m. and is open to the public.

Ron Mallory, the music director of Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Maple Valley, attended the closing concert last year and said he was “impressed at the level of musicianship exhibited by the players there.”

Lewis recommended Mallory to become part of Distinctly Bronze, and this year Mallory will participate alongside Lewis and Hersey.

Mallory said he is “looking forward to playing some of the best handbell music ever written with some of the best handbell performers from around the nation.”

If you go

Distinctly Bronze West Final Concert

Shelby Lichliter is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.

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