CHESTER — The sound of bells filled the Chester Courthouse during the recent Christmas Open House.
Christmas carols including Silent Night and Coventry Carol played by experienced ringers under the direction of Cris Kuhn took on an air of magic as the sounds reverberated throughout courthouse. The audience loved the upbeat rendition of ”My Favorite Things.”
“This is one of the best places to perform,” Kuhn said. “The acoustics in this old courthouse are magnificent.”
Through her dedication to her students, and that of her students, the group performs as a unit. The musicians make it look easy, but bell ringing takes hard work and hours of practice. The switching of bells, the timing, and the tapping of bells with small mallets is all done with one cohesive sound.
According to the Lancaster Handbell Ensemble and the Hand Musicians of America, ‘hand bells’ as they are known in Europe and the United States are descendants from the tower bells in England.
The art of tower bell ringing was becoming part of the English tradition around the 16th Century. It took hours of practice and could be disturbing to the people in the village. To remedy the situation, small bells were developed so the ringers could practice indoors.
By the 18th Century, this type of bell ringing had become its own art, and larger sets of hand bells were cast specifically for this type of bell ringing.
It is said the interest in hand bells in America was the result of the accomplishments of Margaret Shurcliff of Boston, Massachusetts. Shurcliff was presented with a set of eight Whitechapel English hand bells in 1902 after she became the first American woman to ring a complete peal on tower bells in England. She also rang two peals on hand bells.
Due to her efforts in promoting and supporting the art, hand bell ringing became popular across the United States, and today “tune ringing” (ringing melodies and simple harmonies set to music for festive occasions such as Christmas) are quite popular.
At the end of the performance, Khun announced her 20 year career as director and teacher at Eastern High School was coming to an end, and that she would be retiring at the end of the school year.
“This is the last time I will be directing this wonderful group of young musicians in this Courthouse,” with a few tears in her eyes, Khun said. “ I just love coming here.”
The choir was formed when Khun became a music teacher at Eastern. When asked during her interview for the position what she could bring to music program, she suggested the idea of a bell choir. The administration and board were very supportive of the idea and agreed to purchase the necessary equipment to begin the bell program.
Now in their nineteenth year, Khun hopes the tradition will continue after her departure, and stressed the importance of music education in schools.
“Students should be encouraged to participate regardless of their experience or ability. We have never told anyone they couldn’t join, everyone who wanted to was included. I love this group; it has been so rewarding to teach these students the art of bell ringing the past 19 years. I will truly miss them, and all of you here at the Courthouse, you have always been so supportive. ”
The courthouse is open on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. You can contact the courthouse by phone at 740-985-9822, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lorna Hart is a freelance writer for The Daily Sentinel.