Portland middle school handbell choir rings in joy, camaraderie

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PORTLAND — Eighth-grader Emily Segal plays the bells in the handbell choir at Lincoln Middle School because it’s fun and “they sound pretty.”

She and the other members of the group performed several holiday tunes, including “Carol of the Bells,” at a meeting of the Cumberland County Retired Educators’ Association Dec. 14.

Lincoln Middle is one of just a handful of public schools in Maine that have handbell choirs, according to Audrey Cabral, the school’s band director.

“Handbells are a longtime tradition at the school,” she said. “Handbells are unique and we are so lucky to have them here.”

Cabral said the handbell choir was founded in 1985 and students at Lincoln Middle “still enjoy ringing after all those years.”

In explaining the sounds made by a handbell choir, Cabral told the retired educators that it’s like 17 people all trying to play the piano at the same time.

Amy Ayer, another eighth-grader, said playing the bells is not so much about musical ability, but the ability to count and stay in rhythm.

Ayer and Isabella Puleo both joined the handbell choir at Lincoln Middle because they had older siblings who were involved in the group.

Segal joined because she saw a friend doing it and thought it looked like fun and a “pretty good group of people.” Isabella Blom also joined because she saw others at the school involved.

The four eighth-graders said they would likely continue playing the bells in high school, assuming they all attend Deering, which is the only one of the public high schools in Portland with a group.

Overall Blom said she plays the bells because “it’s great to play with all these lovely people first thing in the morning,” while Segal said, “It’s really fun and there’s no judgment.”

Handbell choir rehearsal is held before school, and Cabral praised her students for their dedication in showing up early every week to practice.

She said Alice Bredenberg, the former chorus teacher at Lincoln Middle, is the one who started the handbell choir 32 years ago.

“She had just finished a year of sabbatical in London, where there are many handbell choirs in churches and schools. She loved them so much that when the Lincoln principal at the time said he had extra money to spend, she jumped on it and bought an octave (set).”

Over the next few years, Cabral added, Bredenberg was able to fill a three-octave handbell set.

Cabral said one reason so few public schools have handbell choirs is because they’re too expensive.

“A new, three-octave set, with pads, books, etc. can cost around $10,000. And even upkeep is expensive.”

She said the bells should be cleaned and fixed by a professional company every 10 years and that can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $4,000, depending on what needs to be done.

It’s so important to keep bells clean because even one fingerprint or speck of dirt can affect the sound it makes, Cabral said.

She said playing the bells is special, because “the sound is unique. It’s also a visual thing. People are fascinated with watching the ringers.”

Cabral enjoys giving her students a chance to play outside the school environment because “so few people get the opportunity to hear a bell choir.”

“When my adult bell choir performed a few weeks ago in Biddeford, I heard people saying as they were leaving the concert that they had never heard a bell choir and they loved it,” she said.

To play the bells well requires the ability “to read rhythmic values, such as quarter and eighth notes. Being able to play correct rhythms and count is what’s needed.”

Cabral started playing the bells at age 12 and is also the director of the handbell choir at the First Parish in Saco.

Cabral delights in teaching kids to play the bells because “I think bell choir is one of the best musical examples of working together as a team. They need to listen to each other and work with each other.”

“This is a form of music where each person’s notes are exposed (so) they need to focus,” she said. And while “there’s some pressure that comes with playing, they all enjoy it and have fun,” too.

When choosing music for her students, Cabral said, “I like to pick pieces that have different bell techniques, such as thumb damps and mallets. When more bell techniques are used it adds color to the pieces.”

“And I like to show the students how each bell is important, no matter how much or little they ring throughout a piece,” she said.

What she hopes audiences get out of handbell performances is “how beautiful they sound, especially at Christmastime. Bells and the holiday season just seem to go hand-in-hand.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Members of the handbell choir at Lincoln Middle School in Portland played holiday tunes for the Cumberland County Retired Educators’ Association last week. From left are Amy Ayer, Isabella Bloom, Courtney Jackson, Emily Segal, Devin Shaughnessy, Francesca Freeman and Reina Dow.

The handbell choir at Lincoln Middle is unique, as not many public schools in Maine have such a group.

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