Handbell festival to feature classical, holiday music

Alisa Boswell

Eastern New Mexico residents ranging from Portales to Albuquerque will be listening to holiday sounds Saturday as they attend and perform at the 19th annual Eastern New Mexico Fall Handbell Festival at First United Methodist Church.

Choirs and individual musicians from Portales, Clovis, Albuquerque and Levelland, Texas, will be performing at the event.

“Each choir rehearses the music, each one usually starting in early September,” said Bill Wood, First United Methodist handbell choir director and event coordinator. “Then they all arrive early so we can spend the day putting it all together. ‘Polishing it’ is what we call it in the trade.”

Wood said Christmas, classical and Thanksgiving-themed music will be played through the use of handbells and hand chimes with all of the choirs performing together for pieces, such as “Away in a Manger,” “On This Day, Earth Shall Ring” and “Thanksgiving.” He said four solo pieces are also being performed.

“These pieces use different techniques. It’s not all just ringing,” Wood said. “One piece uses the singing bell technique. It involves holding the bell with the opening up and rubbing a wooden dowel around the edge of the bell to make a vibrating sound.”

Wood said when he was a music professor at Eastern New Mexico University, he was inspired to start a handbell festival in the local area with the help of some colleagues.

“I had taken groups to festivals in other areas, so I knew what a wonderful experience it was but a lot of people in this area had not had that opportunity,” Wood said. “I would say that people have always enjoyed it. We always get positive comments about it and we’ve always had good audience size.”

Wood said since the handbells are brass and copper and the hand chimes aluminum, the concert gives a variety of sounds.

Jan Smartnick, choir director and part of the event’s planning committee, said the event has a different choir director each year with this year’s being Stephanie Wiltse, of Grand Rapids, Mich.

“It’s very interesting ringing under different directors,” Smartnick said. “Every director is their own personality in directing and some put more emphasis on rhythm and some put more emphasis on the dynamics. But we’re all reaching for that great overall sound.”

Smartnick said she loves coming together with a variety of other handbell musicians to play.

“It’s an opportunity to get started off in the holiday season,” Smartnick said. “People always love to hear bells at Christmas time.”

Wood said the public is welcome to come and view the all day rehearsals Saturday before the performance.