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From Ellington to Lady Gaga, Handbell Ringers Appeal To Many

Jennifer S. Jordan

Handbells aren't just for Christmas, Easter and holy hallelujahs.  The Three Rivers Ringers community handbell group is ringing in spring. The ensemble's performing classical waltzes,  jazz, tunes by pop star Lady Gaga and even wedding dance songs.

At St. James Catholic Church in Sewickley, an unexpected song played on unexpected instruments rings out. It’s a Sunday, after regular church services let out for the day, but the pews are full.  Standing around the altar facing the congregation are 15 women and men dressed neatly in black like orchestra pros, with tight-fitting short black gloves. They’re lifting and shaking and thumping dozens of bells for the Hava Nagilah folk song often heard at Jewish weddings.

Credit Jennifer S. Jordan
After a Three Rivers Ringers' performance, player Dan Fernandez shows fan Carol Lewis of Aliquippa how to play the bass bells.

And this song isn't even the most unusual tune that the group will play in the next hour.

Nancy Lutz is artistic director of the Three Rivers Ringers and secretary of the organization formerly known as The American Guild of English Handbell Ringers.  She successfully lobbied to change the name to handbell musicians of America. 

“We like the idea of using the word musicians to elevate our craft because it is a valid musical art form," Lutz said.  "It takes skill and we work very hard. today you saw many people ringing an instrument with many instruments in their hands.” 

The Three Rivers Ringers is one of a growing number of community handbell ensembles around the country. The spurt started with the Raleigh Ringers about 20 years ago in North Carolina. 

It’s still performing what it calls unique interpretations of sacred, secular and popular music, including famous rock ‘n’ roll tunes arranged just for handbells. Spring is the time of year to catch these groups going way off the typical Christmas playlist. So forgive Lutz if she’s inspired by Lady Gaga’s hit "Let’s Dance."

“I’ve talked about doing it for probably at least three seasons," Lutz said. "So when we put this dance program together, of course we had to end with Lady Gaga.”

The ensemble dons technicolor plastic glasses and one member wears a purple wig for the number.

Going "gaga" over the group was audience member Carol Lewis from Aliquippa. She's seen the ringers multiple times and was practically speechless after the show.    

“Handbells fascinate me," Lewis said. "I mean, I have no musical talent. Their talent is just so good, and the comedy, the variety, everything.. I’m just so … I don’t know, excellent program.

Some members of the Three Rivers Ringers point out that while handbell groups are inspired by modern music, the influence goes the other way, too. A group of ringers played backup to Icelandic singer-songwriter Bjork in her 2009 song "Who is it?"

The Three Rivers Ringers has one more performance in its spring series Saturday in Washington, Pa.

If you make it, bring your dancing shoes, and don't be surprised if you get pulled into the aisle for the wacky wedding song, The Chicken Dance.