The melodic ringing of handbells is a sound not often heard outside of the holiday season.
Unless, of course, it happens to be the fourth Sunday of the month.
That is when the eight-member handbell choir at First United Methodist Church of Celina performs during the 9 a.m. Traditional Worship service.
It is the only choir of its kind in the city.
The church, which relocated last month from its longtime home in downtown Celina to a newly constructed sanctuary at 12465 F.M. 428, has boasted a handbell choir since 1991.
That is when a large set of the instruments was donated by congregants J.C. and Etta Ownsby, who were members of one of the city’s oldest families.
“Apparently, she just really loved them,” Neil Mowles, director of the church’s music ministry, explained of the late Etta Ownsby and her enthusiasm for handbells.
In 1993 the choir, then called the Celina Belles, traveled to Germany for a performance at a church there.
Chris Hahs joined the group not long after it was founded and has remained a member.
“I was dying to join (the group), but I’m not real coordinated with my hands,” recalled Hahs, who said she was approached by the choir’s then-director and urged to give the instrument a try. “I got hooked.”
These days, she said, “It’s just something I love to do. I’m not especially good at it, but I really enjoy it.”
Mowles, who also conducts and performs in the choir, said part of the handbell’s appeal may be how easy it is to play.
“You don’t have to read music,” he said, and players are typically only responsible for performing a handful of notes in each song.
That said, “It is a big team,” explained Patricia Mowles, Neil’s wife who also performs with the group.
“You have to have everyone playing together,” she said. “We’re one big music instrument and it truly is different than the vocal (choir) because you actually have an instrument” to play.
Rev. John Baldwin has for five years lead the congregation at First United Methodist Church of Celina.
He said the handbell choir’s music “adds a different texture to worship. There are no words to the music, it’s rhythm and flow, so it allows for a time of contemplation or connection that choral music doesn’t by its nature.
“There is an otherworldly feel to it,” Baldwin said, “so it speaks to an established faith in a way that more modern music can’t. It is a link in the historical anchor of the church. And, it’s just pretty.”
Gloria Fisher of Gunter and her daughter, Lisa Mega, began performing in the handbell choir several years ago.
“I wanted to learn how to play a piano my whole life, but I never learned how,” Fisher said. On her sheet music for the handbells, she said she puts “a little marking” next to the notes she is required to play.
Like her mother, Mega said she had never played a musical instrument prior to picking up the handbells.
“I couldn’t even read music and now I can … so it’s been great for that,” she said. “The fact that I didn’t have any experience didn’t shy me away.”
This is the third handbell choir in which Neil Mowles has performed. He said there are various techniques for creating sounds with the instrument.
“It’s more than just ringing. You can use mallets on them. Sometimes you plunk them into the tabletop,” he said. “There’s all different types of sounds that you can get out of the bells – more than just the ringing of them. To me, that’s one of the most enjoyable parts” of performing and listening to the music.
It can take up to six weeks for the choir at First United Methodist to learn each piece of music they perform at church services as well as city-sponsored events including Celina’s annual Christmas on the Square.
During their final performance in March in the church’s former sanctuary, the choir performed a song called “A Joyful Pslam, which Mowles said proved to be particularly difficult. “That one has everything but the kitchen sink when it comes to techniques.”
Nevertheless, “It’s interesting to watch the group play and some of the different techniques that we do, and just to see us up there concentrating and swinging those things around.”