This is not your average workout: Bell ringing?
Betsy Smith & Susan Moeller
My hand weights make music. Can yours?
At least once a week, I play in a choir that rings English handbells, a musical tradition going back almost 200 years.
But hold the ding-a-ling jokes.
For my bell buddies and me, hanging out together and swinging brass bells weighing anywhere from a few ounces to more than 10 pounds for an hour or two is not only good for our bodies but also our brains.
“Bell playing is an excellent, excellent source of visual and cognitive skill,” says my fellow ringer Julia Rush, an occupational therapist at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital Cape Cod.
Joyce Joakim of Hyannis, one of the three 80-somethings in our choir, has also been playing bells for about 20 years. Unlike me, she’s a real musician. She plays organ and piano and has sung in choirs since she was a girl. Bell ringing keeps her going, she says.
“There are so many aspects to it: the thrill of the music, the thrill of the technique, the thrill of playing together, the thrill of making the music come together. I’ve had a lot of arthritis in my shoulders. If I weren’t doing something, I probably couldn’t move my arm. I almost have to do it.”
Even if a piece doesn’t go perfectly, bell ringing is good for our egos.
“We get out of the choir loft and people are coming up to us and saying, ‘Oh that was awesome,’” says Julia. “We feel good that we’ve accomplished playing a piece of music and then we get people coming up and telling us we did a good job. There’s a huge social positive reward factor going.”
Handbells Come in All Sizes and Sounds
As Julia says, we all want to be part of a community. And in the last 20 years, my community has included the dozen or so bell ringers who gather on Tuesday nights in the meetinghouse of West Parish of Barnstable. Specific ringers may come and go, depending on commitments and schedules. But when I step in the meetinghouse door on a cold winter’s night – late as usual – and hear the bells in the balcony, I know that for 90 minutes, we will have fun, learn something new and be in a place apart from the everyday world.
No one ever said that about the gym.
Handbells come in octaves, including sharps and flats, and a five-octave set these days can cost almost $25,000. The smallest bells weigh a few ounces; the largest over 15 pounds. Each is marked with the note and octave number and has a looped plastic handle. I play smack in the middle: B5, B-flat 5, C5, C-sharp 5 – each bell weighing about two pounds. Most choirs, and there are about a dozen on the Cape, have three to five octaves.
There are solo ringers but for most of us, this is a team sport.
To ring, you move the bell in a banana-shaped motion away from your body as if you were holding a glass of wine. You stop the vibrating sound or “damp” by bringing the bell back against your body. Tip the bell too much and the “wine” spills, creating too much strain on your wrists. Forget to damp when you’re supposed to and you step on someone else’s chord. Damp when you’re not supposed to and spoil the effect of a held note.
And that’s just the tip of what we have to remember. Isn’t that more fun than lifting weights by yourself? And it’s just as good for you.
The Physical Benefits of Ringing Bells
Here’s what Julia says ringing bells does for us physically:
- We use our shoulders (the mid trapezius, in the language of OT), triceps, biceps and other muscles all the way down to our fingers, which we use to grip the bell handles. “Unless you’re swinging one of those kettle bell thing-ys at the gym, you’re not using all those muscles,” says Julia.
- We use isometric strength to keep our wrists in a neutral position.
- Our vision gets a workout because we have to focus on the music in front of us, then look up at the director, then back at the music, then back at the director, then down at a bell – you get the idea.
- This is a weight-bearing workout that’s good for core and balance. “You can’t pick up a bell and ring it effectively if you have terrible back posture,” says Julia. “You have to have to have good stability.”
- And we need endurance to play for three or four minutes several times in the course of 90 minutes. And if we practice before a concert or church service, we might be ringing on and off for three hours.
- Meanwhile, Julia says we are creating new neurological pathways by using our short- and long-term memories and learning new techniques and music – similar to how learning a language works your brain. When she gets a new piece of hard music, Julia first balks and then tells herself, “but I’ll never get Alzheimer’s.”
With Handbells, Size Matters
Members of our choir, men and women some in their 80s, are usually keeping track of three or four bells while trying to follow our particular notes in the music and count the correct rhythm (“1-and-ah, 2-and-ah….) set by director Donna Murphy of Brewster. The trick is to follow her pace and only ring your particular note when you’re supposed to ring and not, well, when you’re not.
And you want to make sure you’re ringing the right bell, say the B and not the B-flat. (Old bell ringer trick: When you make a mistake, turn and scowl at the ringer on your right.)
Farthest to my right, stands Cassie Haven whose bells weigh only a few ounces. This might seem unfair because, at 25, she is currently the youngest in the group. But she can hold two of the smallest bells in each hand, play each one individually, put them down and pick up four more, all in the same three-minute piece. Her brain works on a whole different level than mine.
Farthest to my left are Doug Haywood and Stan Warren, the strongmen of the group who play the biggest bells. These range up to 10 inches in diameter and more than 10 pounds. When they are really rocking, these guys can swing them as if their bells were made of Styrofoam.
Sometimes we hit the bells with mallets or play individual hand chimes, which sound a bit like a vibrating xylophone. So we might be shuffling bells and chimes and mallets and counting and trying to watch Donna and then someone gets lost and it all comes crashing down and we just have to roll our eyes and start over.
Joyce Joakim stands next to Mary Stepita of Marstons Mills, another indefatigable 80-something. Mary, also a singer and pianist, says she loves the music and the people – “If I didn’t like any of them, I wouldn’t be there.”
If I’ve had a bad day or I’m tired or just not getting it, I watch the two of them for inspiration.
As Joyce puts it: “Mary and I had this discussion two years ago and she said, ‘I’m not quitting bells.’ And, I said, ‘neither am I.’ We’re going to keep playing until we drop.”