WASHINGTON — The celestial sounds of handbells rang loudly when 542 ringers chimed together Aug. 29 to play the national anthem before a crowd gathered for a game at Nationals Park in Washington.
The mass choir, organized by a regional affiliate of Handbell Musicians of America, included ringers from over 50 churches representing seven denominations in Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Delaware. It included ringers ranging in age from older elementary school students to adults in their 70s.
Handbell Musicians of America is a non-profit organization established in 1954. Organized into 12 geographic regions, it is dedicated to advancing the musical art of handbell/handchime ringing through education, community and communication.
Jerry Hill, chair of the Area 3 Metro Washington advisory council and handbell director at First Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., calls the mass choir a “remarkable experience and logistical challenge” with so many participants from different locations.
“It was a puzzle to put them together — a fun puzzle — and one that only God could have made happen so smoothly,” he said.
“When we received the invitation to participate, it was for several small groups of ringers,” he said. “But we decided to open it up for the entire area — with the dream of possibly a choir of 150 members. Even though few choirs had every member participating, the response was beyond our wildest imaginations.”
Hill directs the Adoration Ringers and children’s handbell choirs at First Baptist. He also serves as music director of Christ Episcopal School in Rockville, Md., where he directs four hand chimes choirs.
“Since over 150 of the bell ringers traveled more than 100 miles for the event, we weren’t all together to practice until the day of the game,” said Becky Verner, director of music at Manassas (Va.) Baptist Church.
The musical arrangement for The Star Spangled Banner was purchased and memorized by each performer prior to the game. Verner said the Evensong Bells, the handbell choir from Manassas Baptist Church, had five rehearsals before the game. Her husband provided members with a recording to practice with at home. There were six cluster rehearsals for groups in close proximity to each other.
Performers purchased a ticket that provided them with a T-shirt to be worn at the game, a ticket for the Washington Nationals vs. Florida Marlins game and transportation to and from the ballpark. They could also purchase tickets to the game for their family and guests.
“We were the largest group that purchased tickets that night with over 1,000 seats reserved,” said Hill.
The 542 ringers began arriving at First Baptist by 11 a.m. for a 30-minute rehearsal in the sanctuary at 1:30 p.m. They had to assemble at Nationals Park near the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood for a sound check at 4 p.m. The national anthem would be played at 6:56 p.m. with the game beginning at 7:05 p.m.
“It was a remarkable scene with all of those people and bells that nearly filled the lower level of the sanctuary,” said Hill. “We organized everyone into 50 choirs to facilitate moving them to the ball park and getting them organized on the field.”
“We arrived at First Baptist about 12 noon and spent an hour getting our T-shirts and receiving tags for our bell cases,” said Verner. Hundreds of cases were labeled with a code and each group was assigned a color and a number.
“All of this came together in a wonderful way, but there were a whole lot of little things going on behind the scenes,” said Hill. He gave credit to First Baptist members , who assisted the handbell choirs as they arrived and helped them through registration and formation.
“It took five buses, as well as local vehicles, to transport the choir to Nationals Park,” said Hill. “And, of course, it’s Washington, D.C., and we ended up in construction — but it worked out well in the end.”
“I began this with the slogan, ‘Feed your faith and not your fears,’ and I had to learn to walk by faith through this entire project,” he said. “God in his wonderful, miraculous way put this together.”
The mass choir filled both sides of the warning track — the part of the field that is closest to the wall — as it performed the national anthem, accompanied by cymbals.
“I’ve never been at a ballpark and heard a performance of the national anthem that was received with as much awe as that night,” said Hill. “Afterward there was a moment of silence — almost giving you a spiritual feeling.”
“With rehearsals, travel time and hours at the ballpark that day, the 542 ringers collectively may have invested 10,000 hours in a performance that lasted less than 2.4 minutes,” said Verner. “But how many times in your life do you have the opportunity to perform the national anthem for national league baseball?”
“It was such a unique experience as choirs and individuals came together,” said Hill. “It was more than just an event to share the art form. It became an opportunity to work together within the Christian body of believers — an opportunity for our Christian witness to be there.”
Barbara Francis ([email protected]) is on the staff of the Religious Herald.