Ringing endorsement Whether teaching others or playing in choirs, Morna-June Morrow has had a handle on handbells since 1969
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Twenty-five handbells, nestled in a box, arrived one cold spring morning in March 1969 at Oakenwald Elementary School, where Morna-June Morrow was teaching.
They had been ordered by the principal, Miss Elsie Dewar, who had seen them in an article and wondered if Morrow would be willing to teach them to the students.
“Sure, I’m game to try anything that is new,” Morrow, 79, recalls responding.
Morrow put in a call to Fred Merrett, who was teaching music at Tec-Voc High School. Merrett, assisted by Audrey Jones, had formed the first handbell group in Manitoba in 1966 and Morrow was seeking direction.
“I phoned Mr. Merrett and said, ‘I have these bells, what do I do with them?’ and then I went over at my lunch hour, and he gave me a 40-minute crash course in these bells,” she says.
“There was hardly any music written for handbells at that time. I remember asking Mr. Merrett, ‘What do I teach?’ and he suggested I take a simple folk song and write my own handbell arrangement.
“That’s what I did the first year. Eventually more and more arrangements for full handbell choirs were written, especially by Americans. Mr. Merrett also wrote over 150 handbell arrangements.”
”I remember asking Mr. Merrett, ‘What do I teach?’ and he suggested I take a simple folk song and write my own handbell arrangement.”–Morna-June Morrow
Today, Morrow is an expert handbell ringer with a long list of awards and accomplishments to her name. Her most recent, an honorary lifetime achievement award, was given to her by the Handbell Musicians of Canada on Sept. 17 for her 53 years serving the handbell community across the country, in the northern U.S. and as the international handbell director at the International Handbell Symposium in Birmingham, England, in 2000.
“This is only the second time this award has been presented to a Canadian,” Morrow says.
Playing the instrument is a complicated endeavour that requires co-ordination and co-operation. A handbell choir has a conductor who directs individual ringers, with each musician sometimes handling multiples bells during a performance, depending on the piece they are playing.
“They are known as choirs because they imitate the singing of hymns,” Morrow explains. “Sometimes they are referred to as teams because it is a team sport, and everyone brings their particular contribution to the overall group.”
“Co-ordination, concentration and commitment are essential, as each bellringer is virtually ringing a solo within an ensemble setting. Rather like a jigsaw sound puzzle, if parts are missing, the picture is incomplete.”
Handbells trace their roots to England, in church steeples where large bells, sometimes weighing up to 900 kilograms, would be hanging up high in the belfry. Bellringers often had to endure inclement weather in the open bell towers when they practised.
“In around 1660, people came up with the idea for bells that could be held in hands, so that they could practise their bell ringing on smaller bells. When the practising was completed they could pull the heavy steeple bells,” Morrow says.
In Manitoba, there are about three dozen handbell sets in two, three and four octaves.
“They are used in school, church and community settings in Winnipeg, Brandon, Carmen, Gimli, Lac du Bonnet, MacGregor, Minnedosa, Starbuck, Stead, Steinbach and Winkler, although in some cases the bells are silent as there is no one to direct the group,” Morrow explains.
Morrow is still very active on the scene, playing with three other bellringers as part of a quartet she formed in 2014. Ring Out, composed of Susan Stevenson, Patsy Andrews-Vert and Jewel Casselman, plays churches, music festivals and community events.
The group has 49 bells, often using up to 45 of them. They also have a set of 61 hand chimes.
Each member of the group is highly accomplished, Morrow says.
Andrews-Vert, herself a retired music teacher with a 32-year career, directs the bells at Trinity Lutheran Church in Starbuck.
Casselman, a teacher at Lakewood School, was one of five teachers in Canada to be nominated for a Juno in May, when she was up for MusicCounts Teacher of the Year, an annual award given to an exceptional music educator.
“We laugh a great deal working out particular problems we encounter. Talk about teamwork!”–Morna-Jean Morrow
And Stevenson, a retired chemist, is the handbell choir director at Broadway-First Baptist Church at the corner of Honeyman Avenue and Walnut Street.
“I am the only member of the quartet that does not have formal music training,” Stevenson says with a laugh. She worked at the grain research lab of the Canadian Grain Commission and first started playing handbells in the mid-’70s.
“I always say, ‘One of these things is not like the others,’” Stevenson continues. “Whenever I say something during our practice they all look at me and go ‘pfttt’.”
“We have an absolute blast when we play together.” Morrow says. “We laugh a great deal working out particular problems we encounter. Talk about teamwork! Normally in large groups you are responsible for three or four bells, whereas in a quartet you might have a dozen bells you share with your partner next to you. Sometimes have to pass a bell in mid-air for them to play.”
“In a quartet you are moving up and down,” Stevenson adds. “One piece I may only have four bells to play, but in other pieces I might range over two octaves, so I am moving. I may range up to get into their space, and sometimes I may range down to get into someone else’s space.”
“The most I have ever rung as a soloist is 28 bells on 12 feet of table.”–Morna-Jean Morrow
“The most I have ever rung as a soloist is 28 bells on 12 feet of table,” Morrow says. “And I am panting by the end of the piece as I am constantly moving.”
Made from bronze bell-metal casting, each bell sounds a chord of five notes. Strike or fundamental tone (at the lip of the bell) is accompanied by a hum tone sounding an octave lower, with three overtones or harmonics, although the only prominent overtone is that of the 12th (at the waist of the bell), explains Morrow.
“Feeling the vibration of each bell absolutely reverberates my soul,” she shares. “I love the bells for the discipline required and the many techniques that have evolved over the decades. When I started, there were four ways of creating a sound on a handbell. Now there are close to 30 ways. Fascinating.”
“For me it’s about being part of a group,” Stevenson says. “When you play handbells you have a limited number of notes, but you are part of a larger choir and you are putting together a cohesive piece.
“It’s a challenge — it’s what makes me keep coming back to this.”
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AV Kitching is an arts and life writer at the Free Press.
Updated on Tuesday, October 11, 2022 11:45 PM CDT: Corrects spelling of Morna-June Morrow