Finger Lakes parishes' handbell choir enriches Masses - Catholic Courier

Finger Lakes parishes’ handbell choir enriches Masses

SENECA FALLS — As the last rays of a setting sun struggled to filter through the stained-glass windows of St. Patrick Church March 4, the haunting strains of handbell music washed over the rows of empty pews inside the church. In the sanctuary seven people stood behind three tables, concentrating on nothing but the sheet music and the handbells in front of them as they played "The Garden of Gethsemane."

"This is an absolutely hauntingly beautiful piece," noted Marge Fahrenholz, director of the handbell choir of St. Patrick Parish and St. Mary Parish in Waterloo, which clustered in 2007.

The handbell choir was formed more than a decade ago at St. Patrick, as evidenced by the choir members’ green T-shirts that proudly display the words "St. Patrick’s Church Celtic Handbell Choir" in gold letters. When the parishes clustered, however, the choir members began playing at St. Mary as well. Choir members dress in more traditional black and white when they play at St. Mary, Fahrenholz noted.

"Now we play as often over there as we do here, and they like us. They like the bells," she observed.

Choir members typically practice once a week and try to play at one Mass per month in each parish, she added.

"It takes time to learn the music and perfect it," Fahrenholz said. "We play for the church services, as the Communion meditation or the offertory, prelude or recessional. It does add so much to a church service. It’s so beautiful."

Parishioners seem to appreciate the handbell choir’s efforts, she noted.

"They love it. During particularly the Communion meditation it’s a very quiet and pretty sound that’s just a nice meditation," Fahrenholz said.

"The parishioners will oftentimes come up to us and say how much they’ve enjoyed it," added longtime member Tom Cimochowski.

Choir member Sue Connor can attest to that. For years she was one of those appreciative parishioners, but two months ago she heard the choir was looking for more people and eagerly accepted the challenge.

"I joined it because I heard the bells off and on for a number of years, and I always thought they were beautiful," Connor said. "The first time I heard them it was a night wedding, candlelit, and the bride processed in to bell music."

Fellow member Liz Logan joined the handbell choir a little more than a year ago. She may be one of the newer handbell-choir members but she’s no stranger to music, as she’s an avid piano player and previously served as the parish organist. Another member, Pat Mahoney, has less formal training and doesn’t read music, but has trained herself to play by ear.

During the March 4 practice Fahrenholz, Cimochowski and the five other choir members planned their Lenten and Easter selections. "The Garden of Gethsemane" had been suggested by Jennifer DeMillo and enthusiastically embraced by the other members.

"That’s definitely a keeper for Lent," Fahrenholz said. "What’s a good piece for Palm Sunday?

"’Change Our Hearts,’" suggested Anna Marie Ellis, DeMillo’s grandmother. "That’s what Lent is all about."

Earlier the choir members had started the practice — their first after a two-month hiatus — with a lighthearted piece called "Joyful Rhythms."

"I’m thinking this would be a really nice prelude at Easter time," Fahrenholz remarked.

All seven choir members wore black gloves as they practiced. They wear the gloves whenever they handle the bells to protect the instruments from fingerprints, Fahrenholz noted.

"This is spun brass. If you get fingerprints on it, that’s going to tarnish it, and if it does, it’s going to change the sound of it," she explained.

Each handbell is perfectly tuned to produce its own unique sound, she added. The metal in the bigger bells is thinner than that of the smaller ones, so choir members must take care when handling all of the bells, especially the larger ones, Fahrenholz said. Certain musical selections require ringers to tap a yarn- or plastic-covered mallet on the bells while they’re resting on their padded tables, but this too must be done with care, she said.

"You don’t ever hit an instrument with a mallet. When you’re playing with handbells, don’t ever clunk them with the mallets," she said. Instead of focusing on the downward motion of the mallet, focus instead on its upward motion, she said.

"You draw away from the bell, you pull the sound out of the bell," Fahrenholz said.

When ringing their bells, choir members also should strive to move their arms in a circular motion, rather than a simple up and down or forward and backward, she added.

"Reach toward the stand, (then) just kind of draw it back toward your shoulder. It has a different sound," she said. "The other thing is it looks so nice. It’s just so pretty to watch it."

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