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Handbell choirs are the true sound of Christmas in Lake Oswego

There are about a half dozen local handbell choirs
by: Vern Uyetake, Linda Woods directs a rehearsal of the hand bell choir of the Lake Oswego United Methodist Church. Not even a broken foot has stopped Woods from getting ready for Sunday’s big Christmas concert.

You could not do without bells at Christmas time. Especially in Lake Oswego.

From the guy ringing a bell over a Salvation Army red kettle to the little tinkly bells on Christmas trees to the bells on your one-horse open sleigh, bells are simply a sound that the holiday season cannot do without.

But the most joyful bell noise of them all comes from the handbell choirs of Lake Oswego. These dedicated women and men often play all year around, but it is at Christmas time they are most appreciated. In fact, they are essential.

There are about a half dozen church handbell choirs in Lake Oswego, and they are responsible for many of the good vibrations of Christmas.

So this is the season to cheer some of the people who give us the sweet sounds of the holidays.

The godmothers

Of LO bell ringing

Before Leanne Bilstrom and Linda Woods came along, the sound of handbells was not heard much in Lake Oswego. It all started with a simple suggestion 25 years ago.

'Leanne had gone to a concert in Portland, and she had never seen a handbell choir before,' Woods said. 'She came back and told me, 'We need to have one of these. You need to direct it.''

The rest is handbell history.

'We had a workshop and raised the money to buy the bells and we were off,' Woods said.

Now, Woods has been handbell choir director of Lake Oswego United Methodist Church since 1982, and one of her ringers is Bilstrom.

But that is not enough ringing for Bilstrom. She has been handbell choir director for Lake Grove Presbyterian Church for the past 18 years. 'It's the best of both worlds,' Bilstrom said.

For both women, for something that started so casually, this has been an amazing experience.

'Handbell ringing is a beautiful art,' Woods said. 'Both visually and musically. It's a sound that not everyone has heard.'

'Being in a handbell choir is an opportunity to work with wonderful people and play wonderful music,' Bilstrom said.

Especially at Christmas.

'Christmas without bells would leave something lacking,' Bilstrom said. 'Handbell music certainly brings joy to a lot of people. Bells can bring a lot of good music to life.'

Bell ringing seems to be as much about friendship and family as it is about music.

'It's fun because we're good friends,' Woods said. 'Recently we celebrated the birthdays of our two oldest members (87 and 88 years old). And they have daughters in the handbell choir.'

The musical background and abilities of handbell choirs vary greatly. At Lake Grove Presbyterian, Bilstrom directs a couple of handbell super stars in Nancy Hascall (who is featured on the previous page) and Beth Klein, who has made DVDs and CDs. But others are simply church members who 'are strictly amateurs who love to give service to the church by playing in our handbell choir.'

Amateur or professional, there is one characteristic of all handbell ringers: dedication. The prospect of a missed note is enough to make a good handbell director shiver.

'A handbell choir is not like a vocal choir,' Bilstrom said. 'When someone is missing, they're just plain missing! It's not like having 10 or 15 sopranos. Missing one won't make much difference. Handbells are a real commitment.'

'It's a big commitment,' agrees Woods. 'When someone can't make it, they have to get a substitute. They've got to or we won't sound right.'

Are there any good excuses for missing a rehearsal or a performance? Certainly not as far as Woods is concerned. Especially with the big church Christmas concert coming up this Sunday. She recently suffered a broken fibula, but she has kept right on directing those bells.

'People are worried I'll fall off the podium,' Woods said. 'But this is no time to be slowed down.'

Handbells are for men, too

Most members of handbell choirs are of the female persuasion. But men are certainly part of the picture, too. Men can provide a bit of masculine timber to the overall choir sound, and they can also be handy at lifting some of the heavier bells.

Like at Christ Episcopal Church in Lake Oswego, which has three male members and even has had a man director since March.

'It was just thrust upon me,' admitted Bob Mensel.

While Mensel does not boast a quarter century of handbell expertise like Bilstrom and Woods, his musical background is impressive. He holds a doctorate in music and conducting, has been the musical director at Christ Episcopal Church for many years, and his main position is as artistic director of the Portland Gay Men's Chorus.

Bells are new to Mensel, but 'they're sort of fun, they're different.

'Handbell ringing is a different skill. You play one note in a line and you play it when it comes along. You have to have a good sense of rhythm and be able to pick a note up in the middle of a difficult passage.'

Mensel may be something of an emergency handbell choir director, but he is enjoying it.

'We have a fun group,' he said.

A ringer in the bullpen

When it comes to handbells, Kat Riley is a special and unique person. Not because she claims to be a great player.

'I don't have a lot of experience as a ringer,' Riley admitted. 'I've only been ringing for five years.'

But she does have one great virtue. She shows up.

'Last year I was in three groups,' Riley said. 'Bell choirs are just one of those things where you need everyone to show up. There are all those notes.

'I'm sort of a relief pitcher.'

Riley is too modest about her musical abilities. She is a talented singer, flutist, arranger and composer, and one day a few years ago she got the notion to take up the bass guitar. She now plays it very well, indeed.

Besides being ready and able to step into a bell choir vacancy, Riley's main virtues are she is physically strong and practically tireless. Which is good, because handbell ringing can be a tough gig.

'Bells are very fragile, and when they clunk together, they can break,' Riley said. 'Some churches fine you. I'd be poor.'

She is also a survivor of a variety of handbell disasters.

'All sorts of things go wrong,' Riley said. 'Tables collapse. Clappers come out. Music stands fall. You can get tendonitis if you don't have good technique.'

She believes that 'All for one, one for all' is a good motto for handbell ringers as well as the Three Musketeers.

'You're nothing without the rest of the group,' Riley said. 'Some people practice at home with bells. Some people use spoons and pop bottles. But it's hard to practice by yourself. It's hard to practice when someone is missing. You need a dozen committed people for a handbell choir to work.'

Yet to Riley, handbell ringing is well worth the hassle.

'Bells have a magical tone that people love,' she said. 'It's utterly fascinating to watch people play. I have a Jewish friend who asked me to let her know whenever I play. The number of tones of a bell are fascinating, anyway.

'At concerts you like to wear something that looks good and makes the bells stand out. The Episcopal church has white gloves and red robes. The Methodist church has white robes and black gloves.

'Good bell ringers have a technique. You look good and you sound good, calm and relaxed, and you have a good time, too. There's no age limit to handbell playing. Some ringers are 87 or 88, and kids can do it.'

Riley is all the way down to playing in just one handbell choir this season. But like Goose Gossage or Mariano Rivera, she is ready when needed. She can even provide some comic relief with a trombone or slide whistle.

'It is such a group activity,' Riley said. 'You know when it's going well. You think, 'We're getting it!'

'By the last note everyone in the choir has a smile on her face and a big sigh comes from the congregation. You just want to do it again.'