Handbell happening: Hundreds of musicians gather in Duluth for festival

At a gesture, 450 musicians placed 900 handbells on the tables in front of them. Without so much as a tinkle. "That's a part of the performance," David Weck said approvingly. The handbell ringers from across the Upper Midwest have been in town si...

Musicians rehearse
About 450 handbell musicians fill the floor of the old arena during a mass rehearsal at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center on Saturday afternoon. The rehearsal was a part of the Handbell Musicians of America regional conference at the DECC this weekend. There is a concert by the large group of musicians at 1:30 today at the DECC. (Clint Austin /

At a gesture, 450 musicians placed 900 handbells on the tables in front of them.

Without so much as a tinkle.

"That's a part of the performance," David Weck said approvingly.

The handbell ringers from across the Upper Midwest have been in town since Thursday, participating in the Handbell Musicians of America Area 7 biennial Festival Conference at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. They've attended classes on handbell technique and handbell maintenance, bought handbell-related T-shirts and gifts, and rehearsed in groups divided according to their skill levels.

Then they all rehearsed together, virtually filling the floor of the old arena, some with "bells" so big they are really chimes struck with mallets. The chimes resemble the keys on a piano keyboard but are as tall as an average-sized man.


The mass choir will present four pieces as the centerpiece of a free concert at 1:30 p.m. today in the old arena. Handbell choirs are a fixture in many Northland churches, but seeing hundreds of handbells played at once is a rarity. The last time the festival was in Duluth was 2004, said Anita Fraundorf, handbell director at Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Duluth and chairwoman of the festival.

Weck, a church musician and clinician from Wheaton, Ill., is one of two directors for mass choir pieces. Weck is founder of The Agape Ringers, a Chicago-area handbell choir that put on a guest performance Friday evening. He conducted the rehearsal with good humor but with an insistence on a high level of musicianship.

Weck stopped the musicians while rehearsing "Entrata Ensultante."

"I've got a ritardando at (measure) 32, do you?" Weck asked them, receiving affirmative nods. "That's amazing. Could we do it, please?"

The musicians watched with intense concentration as Weck put them through their paces. They ranged in age from young adults to senior citizens, but tended toward middle age. They were predominantly female.

One of the exceptions was Alan Salmela, 64, a member of the Rivertown Ringers from First United Methodist Church in Stillwater, Minn. Being part of the male minority doesn't bother him.

"I guess it depends on your perspective," Salmela said, with a twinkle in his eye. "If you like to be around women, it's a good place to be."

At 19, fellow Rivertown Ringer Samantha Houser was in the younger generation of festival participants.


"I've grown up with music, and this is fun," Houser said. "And the atmosphere is so friendly."

"And her mom's the director," added Rachel Reyna, 33.

The people from Stillwater were relaxing ahead of the mass choir rehearsal at a table in the vendor area. Nearby, Wendi Calkins Levitt and Karen Hensel of Third Bell on the Right from DeSoto, Kan., were selling their last T-shirts before closing up their shop.

The women said they were glad to escape the 100-degree heat and humidity back home during their first foray into Area 7. Their T-shirts carried slogans ranging from the sublime ("Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything" -- Plato) to the, uh, not sublime ("Co-ed Naked Handbells; Feel the Vibration").

The business is a sideline for the two women, who play in a total of six handbell choirs between them. In other contexts, Hensel plays cello and Levitt plays French horn.

Levitt said her first love is French horn; she's in the Kansas City Wind Symphony, which has performed in Carnegie Hall. But she appreciates the egalitarian aspect of handbells.

"Anybody can do it," Levitt said. "Put the bells in your hands, and I can have you playing them. ... Not everyone can walk in and say, 'Doggone it, I'm going to play the French horn.' "

Still, it's apparent during the mass rehearsal that performing at a high level requires skill and concentration. It also requires cooperation, Fraundorf said.


"When I'm introducing it to people, I tell them it's like playing team piano," she said. "You're (individually) responsible for just several notes, and as a whole you're responsible for everything."

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