MANITOWOC — The handbell was developed in 17th-century England when church bell ringers wanted to practice without disturbing the whole town.
Small handbells were made to correspond with the bells in the tower. Once the bell ringers began practicing indoors with handbells, they not only appeased their disgruntled neighbors, but avoided spending more time than necessary in the drafty bell tower.
The bronze handbell is a percussion instrument, but eventually evolved into a musical mode of expression all its own and spread in popularity.
“Today, there are handbell ensembles all over the United States, Canada, South American, Europe, Asia, Australia and even Puerto Rico,” said Sandra Eithun, director of Manitowoc’s Holy Family Conservatory of Music Handbell Ensemble.
The Conservatory Handbell Ensemble — also known as the Conservatory Ringers — will perform two public concerts in March, one in Green Bay at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral and one in Manitowoc at the Holy Family Conservatory of Music (see box).
The program will include sacred and secular music, including “I Will Lift Mine Eyes Unto the Hills,” an original piece by Cathy Moklebust; the traditional sacred arrangement of “Peace Like a River” and “Rondo Exsultate,” an original piece by Doug Wagner.
The Conservatory Handbell Ensemble debuted in 2009, when then-Silver Lake College began offering handbell classes. The Conservatory took it over in 2021 after the college closed.
Holy Family Conservatory of Music, established in 1925 by the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity, has a proud tradition and high standards for music education.
The Conservatory offers beginner group classes for handbells, piano, violin, percussion, ukulele and guitar. Private lessons are offered for piano, violin, viola, harp, guitar, ukulele, percussion, voice and wind instruments. It is located at 6751 Calumet Ave.
The ensemble’s 18 current members range in age from 16 to 87 and come from all over the state. They play five octaves of bells (about 60), plus seven octaves of chimes, said Eithun, who holds a master of music education degree and has 30 years of experience as an educator and church musician.
“To describe a handbell ensemble, it would be like taking the keys off a piano and distributing them to the musicians and having them be responsible for the pitches they were given. It’s one instrument, but requires this amount of people to play it,” she said.
“The one thing I like about bells as a music educator is that it isn’t ‘one size fits all,’” Eithun said. “In the same room, you have a wide spectrum of musicianship. There are positions that will keep the advanced ringers engaged and there are positions that will make sure that the beginners aren’t overwhelmed.”
It was Eithun’s talent as a music instructor and director that led Ann Arbuckle of New Holstein to join the Conservatory Ringers.
Arbuckle, a church organist for 40 years, had taken a class with Eithun at Silver Lake College. When she learned that Eithun was teaching bell-ringing classes at the Conservatory, she eagerly signed up.
“I started as a student at the Holy Family Conservatory of Music when I was 7 years old. Now, I’m 75 and I’m back,” Arbuckle said. “My love of music and the fact that this is an instrument I can learn to play at this point in my life holds a high (priority) for me.”
Six years ago, Sr. Marcus Steede of Manitowoc attended a handbell concert and loved it. “At the next practice,” she recalled, “I walked in and said, ‘Can I join?’’’
Sr. Marcus has taught the Suzuki method of playing violin all her life and wanted to be part of a musical group. “Working with Sandy (Eithun) is a real treat,” she said. “She is such a mentor for the young people and a challenge for the rest of us.”
Sr. Elizabeth Benvie, a music teacher, is currently working as director of St. Rita Health Center in Manitowoc. Joining the Conservatory Ringers is part of a musical renewal for her.
“Ringing bells allows me to have time outside of my regular schedule to be renewed by music and the comradery of other musicians,” she said. “The music is so life-giving for me. I really enjoy joining other musicians to make beautiful music. It unites us. Playing in the handbell choir is kind of a prayer without words. Music can lift our minds and hearts to God.”
- St. Francis Xavier Cathedral
140 S. Monroe Ave., Green Bay
Sunday, March 13, at 6:30 p.m.
A freewill offering will be collected
- Holy Family Conservatory of Music
6751 Calumet Ave., Manitowoc
Sunday, March 20 at 2 p.m.