The Bonnie Ross Ringers of Greensburg First United Methodist Church.
By Margaret Smykla
For 30 minutes before and after Christmas Eve services, one of the hand bell ensembles at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Mt. Lebanon performed outdoors to accentuate the blessed occasion for arriving and departing worshipers.
"It's a wonderful fellowship and a way to be with others who share the same love of music," music director Rich Pinkerton said of hand bell playing.
At St. Paul's Episcopal Church, also in Mt. Lebanon, the hand bell ensemble is new -- it debuted at the Christmas Eve service after only three rehearsals.
"If you have a limited music base and the ability to raise your arm and ring, you can pull together a great performance in a nominal time," assistant music director Bryan Sable said.
A hand bell is tuned like a piano keyboard. Each bell has a specific pitch, and there is a different bell for each note of the keyboard. The sound is stopped by touching the bell, which is called damping. A hand bell ensemble typically has about 12 people.
Southminster Presbyterian Church has five performing groups. Mr. Pinkerton, of Mt. Lebanon, directs the church's Southminster Ringers, which is made up of five hand bell ensembles, or choirs, with ringers ranging from third-graders to adult.
"It really takes a team effort," he said. "If someone is missing, the team is incomplete, and the sound is incomplete. Everyone is needed and vital."
The Southminster Ringers have played at a number of places, including the Allegheny County Jail and the White House and have performed for the president of Lithuania.
Cynthia Donahoe is director of the Southminster Handbell Ensemble, which plays once a month and takes a weekend mission trip each fall. She began ringing hand bells in junior high school.
"Hand bells have rapidly become a passion for me. I love making music with a group of similarly committed individuals," she said. "I love the sound of a hand bell choir and the fact that the group must breathe and play as a unit to realize a true musical experience, both for the musicians and the audience."
The Mt. Lebanon woman is also a member of the Three Rivers Ringers, which was formed in 2010 when five members of the Chapel Bells, an advanced adult hand bell ensemble at Mt. Lebanon United Methodist Church, decided to take their talent and enjoyment of the instrument to a higher artistic level.
The Three Rivers Ringers will produce the 13th Western Pennsylvania Handbell Festival -- a beginning-level festival for hand bell choirs -- on April 13 at Robert Morris University in Moon.
Jill Croushore is a lay leader and member of the hand bell choir at Greensburg First United Methodist Church in Greensburg.
The ensemble is named the Bonnie Ross Ringers after a former director who died of cancer in her 30s.
"People love to hear the bells play. Not all churches have them, so it can be a real treat," Ms. Croushore said.
She also directs six to eight residents who play hand bells at the Nature Park Commons senior care residence in Greensburg, an extension ministry of the church. The ensemble performs at the residence and at similar places.
"It gives them something really good to do, and people really enjoy hearing them," Ms. Croushore, of Greensburg, said.
Mr. Sable resurrected the hand bell choir at St. Paul's Episcopal Church a little more than a month ago.
"I was a music director in a church in Wheeling that had a very active hand bell program. ... It is just so much fun," he said.
Mr. Sable, of Coraopolis, called hand bell playing "a wonderful experience for people of all ages and musical levels. You can have not a lot of knowledge about music, can join right in and within 30 minutes of instruction you are on your way to making great music.
"It is a great way of expanding someone's musical knowledge and giving them the skills necessary to improve their rhythm reading and understanding basic musical notation."
Best of all, hand bell playing is beginner proof, he said.
"If one person makes a mistake, it does not devastate the whole thing."