Katonah Ringers handbell choir fosters community and connectivity through music
In late July, the Katonah Celebration Ringers, an all-ages advanced bell choir, piled into a coach bus and set off on a two-week tour. The group was set to perform at venues in Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and Georgia before its final performance at the International Handbell Symposium in Nashville, Tennessee.
In Nashville, the Ringers performed for a crowd of over 1,000. This year’s Symposium was held in the United States, but in years past bell ringing has brought the Ringers to countries including England, Scotland, Wales, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan and South Korea.
“This is one of the coolest parts of the program,” said choir director Scott Munson, who has been involved in the Katonah bell choir since 1978. “When we do these tours every two years, we tour around the U.S. or another country for a week or two, giving concerts at churches and schools. We once played in a cave in New Zealand for a TV show.”
Ringing bells is not one of Westchester’s more popular or well-known activities, but its members say it’s an under-the-radar gem. North Salem resident Melissa Sultana, who joined the choir with her 11 year-old daughter Anna two years ago, said she is extremely grateful to have discovered the group.
“Being a parent, we’re usually teaching our children. In this scenario, we’re both learning together; we’re both on the same level,” Sultana said. “That’s something unique that a parent doesn’t typically get to experience.”
Sultana said she appreciates bell practice for the way it forces her to set aside her day-to-day stresses. “It allows you to shut everything else out because you have to focus on just the music. You can’t be texting at the same time or looking at an email. It gives you that quiet space to engage and be present.”
Indeed a bell choir requires of its members a special kind of focus. Each ringer is assigned a unique set of bells to ring. No other member of the choir has those same bells, and each note is typically only rung by one person. The net result is that handbell ringing is highly individual - you have to nail your part - while also being highly collective - you need a group in order to pull off a handbell performance.
The bell choir’s collectivistic nature makes it an outlier in a world that emphasizes solo performances, star players and team captains. “In the bell choir, you’re playing your own specific notes,” Munson said. “You're just as important, but no more so, than the person ringing to your left and to your right.” Munson added that if just one member of the choir misses their note, the whole piece falls apart. “If you don’t stand out, you're probably doing your job. Choir values the individual, but only insofar as their contributions to the group.”
Sultana has found that group dynamic to be refreshing. “The people are friendly and gracious. You don’t have to come with any skills or background in music to be able to learn.”
While pre-existing training is not a requirement, the Katonah Ringers do segment their members into three groups, to appeal to differing levels of interest and ability. The Celebration Ringers are the beginners’ group, and accepts children as young as 2nd grade. They rehearse once a week for 45 minutes and perform in church several times a year.
The Chamber Ringers are the intermediate group. They play in church monthly and participate annually in the Hudson Valley Handbell Festival Conference. The Adult Bell Ringers, which meet periodically, and the Katonah Celebration Ringers, the advanced traveling bell choir, round out the other groups.
“It used to be almost assumed that if you were a kid in our church you would at least start ringing,” Munson said. “It was almost as ubiquitous as church school. Now, it’s a lot harder to get them to do it.”
Membership in the Katonah bell choirs has declined over the years, a trend Munson attributes to declining church membership. According to Gallup, U.S. church membership hovered near 70 percent for the six decades between the late 1930s and the 1990s, before beginning a steady decline around the turn of the 21st century. Today it sits at just 47 percent. The decline is in line with national trends of lower levels of civic engagement overall. According to a 2017 Pew Research Study, just 19 percent of Americans said that they participated in church groups or hobby groups.
While church membership historically fed enrollment in the bell choir, Munson stresses that bell ringers need not have any affiliation with the church in order to participate.
“It’s a community bell choir hosted by the Katonah Presbyterian Church,” Munson said, adding that the group intends to reach out to other area churches to attract new members.
That sense of community is what keeps Sultana and her daughter coming back. “I like that it’s open to everybody,” Sultana said. “It bridges communities and towns. It brings people together in a positive way.”
For Munson, making the case to kids about playing bells is about understanding what matters to them. “Sometimes I’ll tell kids who are thinking about ringing bells two great things: one, you’ll never have to practice at home, so your parents can’t make you practice and two, you’ll never play by yourself. You will always need your friends to play with you.”
Munson may point out how little is required of participants, but he can’t overemphasize how much he feels participants gain by joining the bell choir. “For these kids, they get to travel to these places not just as a tourist but as someone who is bringing something to the people of that country. That’s what this program is about - community, music and love."
Community members who are interested in learning more about the Katonah Ringers may contact Scott Munson by calling 914-232-4568 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
This article has been updated from a previous version that incorrectly stated that the Katonah Ringers performed in a cage in New Zealand. The Ringers performed in a cave. We regret the error.