Bell Canto

A Bangalore group produces song, one ring at a time

Ringers await their notes at a rehearsal of the Bangalore Conservatory’s Handbell Choir. PEEVEE FOR THE CARAVAN
01 July, 2013

ONE AFTERNOON IN MAY, 18 young men and women piled into a small basement room in Kalyan Nagar in the north-east of Bangalore. Inside, 36 bells of various sizes sat on blanketed tables. The players picked up the bells, and began to chime out, in carefully-timed individual motions, the notes to the hymn ‘Psalm of Life’.

“Focus on the melody,” Yanpothung Humtsoe, the choir’s director, said to one section of the players after the hymn ended. “The rest of you—play softer.” Holding a bell, Humtsoe swept his arm in a long, slow semicircle to show the deep resonance that the action created; he then contrasted this with the short clang produced by a simple jerk of the wrist. The difference was unmissable; the group murmured their understanding.

The group, the Bangalore Conservatory’s Handbell Choir, is an ensemble comprised entirely of handbell players, known as “ringers”. On its website, the choir describes itself as “probably the first of its kind” in Bangalore, and the country. The choir’s ringers are typically recruited and trained from the teaching programmes of the conservatory, an institution founded in the city in 2006, which offers three-year Bachelor’s degree programmes in Western classical music.

The handbell choir is a unique musical ensemble in its division of labour: parts are assigned as individual notes, and not as complete melodies as they would be in a vocal choir or orchestra. A bell is tuned to one of the 12 tones in the chromatic scale—seven notes, plus sharpened and flattened variants—and set in a specific octave. Members are typically assigned a single note, such as A-sharp; Playing that single note, in time, is their primary task. More advanced ringers manage two to three bells, switching deftly between bars of music.

To those who only associate the bells with places of worship or schools, the complex expressive possibilities of the bell can be a revelation. Different strokes, from the basic ring to plucking, echoing or striking with mallets, can coax a range of sounds out of the bell, from a gentle hum to an explosive clang.

But finding concert handbells isn’t easy—or cheap. The conservatory’s entire stock came as a donation from a United States church. Because the instrument is rare in these parts of the world, students and faculty also handle maintenance and repair. Bells must be stored in a cool environment; direct contact with hands can tarnish the brass. Most ensembles use foam pads to rest the bells on—the foam is said to prevent tarnish, as well as prevent the bells from rolling off their tables—but Humtsoe and his group replicate the effect with thick blankets and thermocol sheets.

One of the constraints of the handbell choir as a musical unit is that each ringer is responsible for a crucial note in the song, and is, essentially, indispensable. “Practices can fall apart if three or four people are missing,” Humtsoe said, adding that he has an army of spare ringers to fill in in such circumstances. Precision and timing are critical; a single second’s hesitation could set off a domino effect for the rest of the group. “Besides the music, it taught me alertness,” said Yurri Shimray, a graduate student of psychology, who plays the F-sharp and E bells.

Bell choirs traditionally have religious repertoires, but some ensembles also expand to include pop and rock favourites. For instance, one US student group has produced, with uncanny accuracy, a handbell version of English pop star Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’. Humtsoe said that the Bangalore Conservatory’s choir, which has performed at venues such as the Hebron School in Ooty and Christ College in Bangalore, will soon expand its repertoire to include American composer Scott Joplin’s ‘The Entertainer’, as well as the theme tunes from The Simpsons and the video game Super Mario Bros.

Shivam Thapar, on a visit from Dehradun to attend the conservatory’s summer training programme, growls lead vocals for a metal band back home. (His online nickname, he told me, is “shivknot”, after American heavy metal band Slipknot.) “This is a far cry [from metal],” the 22-year-old said, after a practice session. “But I like playing the handbells, I like the group. When I return home, perhaps I’ll use the handbell in our metal compositions.”