PORTLAND, Maine — On Friday morning at Lincoln Middle School, students filed into a room and pulled on smooth, black gloves. They lined up around a long stretch of folding tables, covered with sound-dampening foam, and set up music stands.
Within moments, the room was swelling with the harmonic chimes of handbells, continuing a tradition that has lasted three decades at the school.
The Lincoln Middle School handbell choir is celebrating 30 years in existence this year. But the hardy bells that have taught students timing, teamwork and tone since 1985 are in need of maintenance.
Music teacher Audrey Cabral said handbell sets need professional cleaning and upkeep about every 10 years, and Lincoln’s storied set “has never been repaired or replaced” since the school first acquired them.
Cabral hopes to raise nearly $4,000 for the undertaking, a grassroots effort that will likely be very different from the fundraising to launch the program three decades ago.
Alice Bredenberg was the school music teacher at the time. Retired since 2000, she returned to Lincoln Middle School on Friday to see the latest class of bell-ringers and recall how the choir got its start.
She said the principal at the time announced to the entire faculty that the school had extra money to spend during the budget year and was accepting proposals — a problem almost inconceivable during the last decade or more of tight finances.
Bredenberg, who’d helped organize a handbell choir at her church, decided to ask for a set of the expensive instruments, and she got them.
“[School handbell choirs] are few and far between, because it’s so expensive to start,” Cabral said.
In an article for a recent Handbell Ringers of America newsletter, Cabral said that Bredenberg started with “diatonic bells only: C5 through C6.”
She said that Bredenberg was forced to write music exclusively in C major to accommodate the bells at hand and boosted enthusiasm for the club by adapting Christmas carols for the handbell set.
Bredenberg then acquired another bell or two each year thereafter until she’d built up what Cabral called a “full three-octave compliment — C4 through C7.”
Bredenberg said Friday that students took to the handbell choir immediately.
“They loved it,” she recalled. “I had a group that played, but I also used them in the classroom, because kids love hands-on activities.”
The choir is a group of 16, with each student auditioning through a written and ringing test before being accepted into the choir.
For those who have never performed with a handbell choir before, Bredenberg said it’s a deceptively challenging task.
“It’s very different than playing a trombone or an instrument where you play the whole song,” she said. “You have to be ready to ring, and you have to know when not to ring. It takes a lot of focus.”
At Friday’s rehearsal, students gripped their handbells and waited for the right beats to interject with their notes.
“I like that it’s not your average instrument,” said Tabarak Al Musawi, 13. “You have to listen to other people, and you also have to count [beats] to know where you are in the song.”
Even the flick of the wrist in ringing a handbell correctly takes practice, Cabral said.
“We spent the first day just on ringing technique,” she said.
Julia Ayer, 12, compared the handbell choir to another of her school activities: soccer.
“It’s a simple concept — kick the ball — but if you want to be good at it, you have to do so much more,” she said.
And when the students put in that work, the finished product can be magical, Bredenberg said.
“People who come into most concerts these days, they come in and [talk amongst themselves],” she said, “but when the bells start, you won’t hear a sound from the audience. It’s captivating. It’s very unique.”