Judging by his enthusiasm, you’d think musician David Emanuel was talking about the latest pop music sensation.
“We definitely feed off the audiences,” Emanuel says. “The audiences are getting bigger and bigger ... it’s just pretty wild, [it] pumps us up.”
On the contrary, Emanuel is actually talking about one of the oldest musical traditions — hand-bell ringing.
For the past 13 years, Emanuel has performed with the Colonial Handbell Ringers, a Prince George’s County-based choir, and one of very few groups of its kind in the area. The Ringers will perform a holiday concert this Saturday afternoon at the Bowie Center for the Performing Arts.
“Most people learn it at church,” says ringer Elie Cossa. “There are very few private groups.”
The Colonial Handbell Ringers got their start as the Potomac English Handbell Ringers back in 1954. Founded by Fort Washington native Nancy Tufts, the choir was the first hand-bell-ringing group in the Washington, D.C., region. Tufts died Sept. 16. She was 102 years old.
According to Cossa, the Colonial Handbell Ringers are a spinoff of the Potomac English Handbell Ringers. Now in their 21st year, they are led by Cossa, Emanuel and director Nena Hiltz.
Cossa, who has been a part of the choir for 16 years, says the art originated as a “method for practicing for bell-ringing in towers.”
The bells used by the Colonial Handbell Ringers hail from Whitechapel, London, the same city that forged the Liberty Bell, and the same city where Tufts got her first set of bells almost 60 years ago.
The Colonial Handbell Ringers perform with a set of 75 bells they’ve amassed over the last two decades. They vary in size and pitch, producing different types of sounds.
“[We have] some really gigantic bells that are hard to ring, top heavy, to little, tiny bells that sound like jingle bells when you ring them,” Cossa says.
But it’s not only the size and pitch of the bells that produce such distinctive sounds. The ringers also employ different techniques to affect the tone a bell produces.
“[The bells make] the sound you make when you’re ringing a typical bell ... but techniques change the style you’ll hear,” Cossa says. “We take a bell and thump it on a table to give it a percussion sound ... change the angles of the bells ... hit it with a mallet. We’ve got anywhere from one in each hand to three in each hand.”
The varying techniques mean bell-ringing is as much a visual experience as it is an oral one. Not to mention a physical experience for the ringers.
“It’s a lot of hand-eye coordination,” Emanuel says. “Sometimes it is acrobatic, especially when we do some eight-note or 16-note pieces.”
Like many hand-bell ringers, Emanuel got his start ringing in his church choir 20 years ago. A pianist with some experience on the organ as well, Emanuel got back into bell-ringing in 1999 while working as a reporter for the Bowie-Blade News.
“I did a story on local music teachers,” says Emanuel, now an editor. “One of them was Mary Parker.”
At the time, Parker was heading the Colonial Handbell Ringers. She asked Emanuel to audition for the group, and he’s been a member ever since.
Now, the Colonial Handbell Ringers, ranging in age from 15 to 76, rehearse at Cossa’s home in Lanham starting in September. The majority of their performances happen in the month of December, around the holidays, although Cossa says the group occasionally does spring and summer programming.
On Saturday, dressed in their traditional Colonial garb, which Cossa says “matches the historical aspect of the bells,” the choir will debut a new song, a hilarious take on “The 12 Days of Christmas,” using 12 different ringing techniques.
“We always have one kind of goofy number that we do in the group,” Emanuel says. “[This] is probably our trickiest one this year.”