By Judy O’Gorman Alvarez
RED BANK – If ‘tis the season for Christmas carols, jingle bells and holiday songs, it must be time for handbells.
The Calvin Ringers of First Presbyterian Church of Red Bank, commonly known as Tower Hill Church, has been worshipping and entertaining for decades with precise and festive handbells.
“It’s the challenge and a commitment, which may turn some off because they’re not willing to make the commitment,” says Adam Peithmann, director of worship and music at the church. But for those who stay with the group, he thinks the rewards are plentiful.
The church’s four groups of young handbell ringers are grouped by grades: the beginner group is made up of third- through fifth- graders; they often move on to the group with sixth- through eighth-graders; and finally, there are two high school groups. This year the Calvin Ringers are made up of 10 high school girls from various schools and towns.
The Calvin Ringers perform a range of musical pieces, including traditional Christmas songs, hymns, classical music and “fun” pieces, such as the theme song from “The Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Being a ringer requires dedication and commitment. Groups rehearse every week and perform throughout the year during worship services and at concerts within the community. Christmas time is especially busy and culminates in the church’s Christmas Eve service.
In addition to adding to the worship service, the 10 p.m. Christmas Eve service reunites alumni ringers, many of who are often home from college or careers for the holidays. “They reminisce about it,” Peithmann says.
“Some were in the program in high school and some are still here and their kids are in it,” Peithmann says. “Some have long graduated from college but still remember being in the program … There’s a lot of history there. A lot of families have some sort of connection” to the handbell ringers.
This is Molly Newland’s ninth year in the program and she relishes being part of the elite Calvin Ringers.
“I like the fellowship among all the girls,” says Molly, who is a junior at Middletown High School South. “I started in third grade and grew up in the church.” Her father was a Calvin Ringer in his younger years and now her 13-year-old sister is part of the younger group of ringers.
Although she played clarinet for five years before high school, Molly enjoys the uniqueness of bell ringing.
“It’s not like any other band or choir and most people haven’t heard it,” she says. “It’s a lot of commitment … I like sharing the music with people who’ve never heard it before.”
Although many of the ringers are members of the congregation, the program is open to all. “We’re open to basically anyone who is interested and willing to make the commitment,” Peithmann says.
Current members come from various towns, including Middletown, Ocean, Fair Haven and Wanamassa.
“You don’t have to have any real musical background” to join the ringers, Peithmann says. “Some of the kids play an instrument in their band in school. Some play cello or some know piano and it may help, but it’s not necessary. What’s great about bells – what makes it strange but also wonderful – is you have to know rhythm. Notes basically stay the same. It’s the technique and bells you have to know.
“It takes awhile to get used to it,” he says. “You have to know rhythm and different bell techniques, such as striking a table or using mallets or using your thumb on the bell to create different sounds.”
Part of the attraction to handbell ringing is that with practice a beginner can improve quickly.
“It really cultivates their sense of musicship and it’s something that’s accessible to people,” Peithmann says. “People within a matter of a year or two are really good at ringing.”
For more information about the Calvin Ringers and their concert series, visit www.towerhillchurch.org.
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