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Notre Dame’s Handbell Choir plays wide range of music

Marisa Iati | Sunday, November 13, 2011

Thursday evenings on the third floor of the Coleman-Morse Center, members of the Notre Dame Handbell Choir can be found meticulously perfecting their craft in preparation for their nine performances this semester.

The choir plays at various liturgies at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and also performs in concert, Director Karen Schneider Kirner said. The ensemble is part of Campus Ministry and was founded in 1988.

“Primarily, we assist with music at the Basilica, so we want to help raise people’s hearts to God by our music, to help enhance the whole worship experience for people who come to liturgies,” Kirner said.

The Handbell Choir performed classical and sacred music as well as pop pieces Saturday at Washington Hall.

“It’s kind of a culmination of both the classical and sacred repertoire we’ve worked on since the beginning of the semester, but it [included] some pieces from [our] new CD,” Kirner said.

She said the choir released its fourth CD, “O Holy Night,” earlier this month.

“There are five pieces that include the Celebration Choir, which I also direct,” she said. “It’s music for both Advent and Christmas. So it’s something you can put on and play for your family on Christmas Eve or while eating Christmas dinner.”

Approximately 16 students play five octaves of bells, Kirner said.

“Each ringer is responsible for two diatonic notes, so, for example, a C and a D, and any sharps and flats that correspond to those notes,” she said. “The music looks very much like piano music. [The ringers] mostly focus on [the lines of music corresponding to their notes] as the music goes on, and you have got to count like crazy.”

Kirner said the teamwork is required for every piece.

“One thing that is kind of amazing is to get so many people together to play one piece and give it coherence,” she said. “It would be like having one piano piece and having 16 people try to play it and make it seem like one piece of music.”

Handbell Choir president, sophomore Michael Vella, agreed the level of teamwork necessary to play bells is unique.

“Everybody works together as a team to make the music … every single member of the choir needs to master their part to succeed,” he said. “Playing bells is easy in a way. All you really need to be able to do is to read music. But at the same time, it takes years to master how to make the tone of the bell sound exactly how it should.”

Fifth year senior and choir member Chris Collins said the visual aspect of a handbell performance greatly enhances the experience.

“You get to see us ringing and switching bells,” he said. “Not only do you get to hear the song, you get to see it, too. People are always surprised by the different sounds that handbell techniques can create. Seeing and hearing people’s surprise … is one of the most rewarding parts of our performances.”

Sophomore Angelica Martinez said she was inspired to continue learning how to play the handbells when she came to Notre Dame.

“I started playing handbells my junior year of high school, but it was only for a year because there was not enough interest at my high school, so when I found out that Notre Dame had a handbell choir, I was really excited,” she said. “I remember in middle school watching my sister’s handbell choir perform … it sounded so magical, words cannot describe.”