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Ringing their hands
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The American Guild of English Handbell Ringers regional conference is in Duluth this week. "Young Ringers" were at center stage on Wednesday and Thursday. (MPR Photo/Chris Julin)
You could call it heavy metal music. Some handbells weigh 13 pounds. More than 1,000 handbell ringers are in Duluth for a conference this weekend. The gathering comes to a crescendo on Sunday when hundreds of them perform at one time.

Duluth, Minn. — Earlier this week about 100 kids were on stage at an auditorium in Duluth. A dozen kids played while the others listened.

The ringers stand with a bell in each hand. They hold the bells against their chests to muffle them until it's time for one of their notes. Then they give one of their bells a firm shake, so the clapper strikes the inside of the bell at just the right moment. From the audience, you can see the music move in patterns through the group -- sort of like watching the keys on a player piano.

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Image Jonathan Lanthier

These ringers come from four states and one Canadian province. The kids' conference was a prelude to a bigger gathering this weekend, when the adult ringers take over. It's a regional meeting of the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers.

Across the country, there might be one million or more people playing in handbell groups. Most of them are connected to churches, schools or community centers.

"My dad brought me to bell choir, and then I've just been playing since, I think, fourth grade," says Jonathan Lanthier. He's a ninth grader from Duluth, and he played at the kids' conference.

"I play C6, D6, C-sharp, at different times," he says. "On the page it's got all the notes for the entire song, and then you just pick out your notes of the bells you have. We can circle them with a pencil, or we just memorize where they are."

He says the sound is "amazing."

Jonathan plays treble bells no bigger than a coffee cup. Macaulley Whitlock plays bass bells about the size of a blender. She's an eighth grader from Duluth, and she says it takes a lot of concentration to hit her notes at just the right time.

"Because there's eighth notes, and it's one-and-two-and-three-and," she says, counting off an imaginary piece of up-tempo music. "If you come on the 'and,' you really have to know where the 'and' is."

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Image Macaulley Whitlock

She laughs, and says, "You can't be late."

"You have 10 to 14 people usually trying to be one musician," says Bill Alexander, the director of Macaulley and Jonathan's group. "It takes a lot of cooperation, a lot of teamwork."

Alexander says handbells were created to satisfy cranky neighbors.

Here's the story handbell ringers tell. About 500 years ago, some folks in England got tired of listening to the practice sessions in the bell tower at their local church. So the ringers got a hold of some smaller hand-held bells and went down to the pub to practice, and handbell music was born.

It eventually showed up in the United States, and somewhere in the 1960s, people started forming handbell choirs and writing more intricate arrangements with harmony lines.

"I got into it because they needed a handbell director at our church," Alexander says. "And I didn't know anything about handbells, so I said sure."

The kids in the group had already been playing for a year.

"So I had to figure out really quickly how to do this," Alexander says. "I went to a lot of classes, a lot of workshops. And that was 25 years ago. Who would have known that my life would have taken this kind of turn? The places that handbells have brought me are just phenomenal."

Alexander teaches high school band, and he owns a shoe repair store, but his biggest claim to fame is that he directs Strikepoint, one of the best-known handbell groups in the country.

"We've been to Hawaii, Hong Kong, Japan, England, Scotland, Wales," he says. "We've been all over the United States and Canada, and produced a whole bunch of recordings." Bill Alexander and the other members of Strikepoint perform this weekend in Duluth. They'll be at the regional conference of the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers. On Sunday they'll join 800 other handbell ringers in a hockey arena and they'll perform a free concert.

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