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As the bells toll—Valley handbell choir’s love of music rings true

May 11th, 2011 Posted in Arts and Life

Story, Photos and Video by Jess Allen

LOGAN—The vibrant tones hang in the air in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church as the choir comes to an end of a song.

Watching and listening attentively to Cathy Ferrand Bullock, conductor of the Westminster Bell Choir, the members of a local handbell group create music that rings across the hills of northern Utah.

Most of her Utah State University students know Bullock as an exacting journalism professor and a successful freelance writer. But Bullock is also an accomplished musician who is passionate in her love of music—particularly English handbells.

“There are different kinds of bells,” Bullock said. “We’re ringing English handbells, and when you’re talking English handbells, you’re talking about a particular kind of bell with a particular kind of clapper mechanism.”

Watch and Listen to the Westminster Bell Choir’s practice on YouTube.

The 22 members of the Westminster Bell Choir meet for three hours of practice every Thursday evening, with the less experienced ringers getting some extra practice and attention from Bullock for the first half of practice.

The first group of ringers plays level-two music, which has three octaves, while the more veteran musicians play compositions with four octaves, explained Ellen Wakeley, a USU graduate student in Watershed Science.

Wakeley said she has been ringing in bell choirs on and off for the past 10 years.

“Of the three choirs I’ve been in this is certainly the best one,” Wakeley said. “Cathy is fabulous as a director. We have a lot of talent in the choir, a lot of really, really talented people, and that lets us play really fantastic music.”

Bullock, who also has served a pianist for the Presbyterian Church choir and other musical events, developed her love of music as a child growing up in rural upstate New York on her parents’ farm. Learning to play the piano and clarinet in grade school eventually led Bullock to discover the beauty of ringing bells.

As her bell ringers set up before a recent practice session, Bullock explained that each ringer is typically responsible for two bells, with the sharp or flat note in-between those bells often shared with another ringer next to them.

“It’s like if you took a piano keyboard and chopped it up into little segments—you’re giving a segment to each bell ringer,” Bullock said. “Each bell rings just one tone, one note, so really it’s very much an ensemble kind of thing. You have to have all the people working together to have the piece happen.”

Ringer Anna Lytle agreed that to have the music hum beautifully, all the pieces had to come together.

“Everybody’s part is important equally, and you can always tell when there’s a couple [of ringers] missing,” Lytle said. “Everybody has to be there… you never hear the whole thing until everyone has contributed.”

Kelly Goonan, a natural resources graduate student who has been a ringer for three years, said handbells is different than any other instrument she has played.

“It’s fun to play as a team like that,” Goonan said. “It’s a lot different from playing in an orchestra setting or a band setting, just because you really have to listen to everything else that’s going around you.”

Bullock has been conducting this team of bell ringers since she took over the director position in 2008, but she’s been playing with the Westminster Bell Choir ever since moving to Logan in 2001.

Bullock’s love of bells began when she was introduced to them in New York in the early 1980s through her church.

Since then, Bullock has played in different choirs as she has moved around the country, from upstate New York, where she earned a degree from Cornell University, to graduate school in South Carolina and Seattle.

In addition to her love of music, Bullock also is an accomplished photographer. She says she learned most of her photographic art from her husband, Mike, a professional photographer whom she met when she was a journalism teacher and doctoral student in Seattle.

Since then, Bullock said the two of them have supported and collaborated together on projects submitted to travel and photography publications.

Before moving to Cache Valley in 2001 to teach at USU, Bullock previously worked for magazines as a writer and editor, and freelanced as a reporter.

With all these diverse interests, one consistency is Bullock’s level of dedication to whatever she undertakes, from the classroom to her music, and the bell choir is no exception.

“It takes an incredible amount of dedication to be part of these choirs, especially on Cathy’s part,” Wakeley said, adding that Bullock always arrives early and stays late for the weekly rehearsals.

The handbell “season” starts in September and lasts until June. The Christmas season is the busiest time, Bullock said, with the choir usually performing 10 times in three holiday weeks for different audiences—perhaps 20 performances a year in all.

They perform at Logan’s First Presbyterian Church once a month, and practices there weekly. During the season, the choir plays nine or 10 times at the church, and offers other performances around the valley, traveling quite extensively to perform in different religious settings, in public, and at retirement complexes and nursing homes.

“I do really like working with her,” Goonan said. “She picks a lot of really fun music and finds things that challenge us. I’ve learned a lot since I’ve started playing with this choir.”

Goonan said she had found the choir after moving from Vermont on the American Guild of English Hand Ringers website.

Bullock said she grateful both for her ringers’ dedication, as well as for the support of the ringers’ spouses and partners, especially during Christmas, as they help the choir with the near-constant packing up and moving of the bells.

The choir plays a variety of music from jazz to classical, Bullock said, not just Christmas music.

Bullock said the choir also performs original music, and one such piece will be performed in the Logan Tabernacle for their last performance of the season on June 11.

“She’s excited about it,” said Jill Stettler, the creator of the piece. “I was really nervous to present it to her, not because she’s unapproachable, she’s not—she’s very approachable.”

Stettler said it was nerve-wracking to put her music out there and was happy when Bullock agreed that the Westminster Choir would premiere it. The title of Stettler’s piece is “Sunfrost Magical Adventure,” inspired by a children’s book she is writing.

Bullock and the choir not only perform around the valley, but also make a trip down to Salt Lake City to a clinic and perform with other choirs once a year.

“Usually in the spring, our concert schedule is a little light, so we go down in March and spend the day ringing with bell choirs all over Utah and we call it the Utah Spring Ring,” Bullock said.

This year’s event featured more than 15 bell choirs that held day-long practices and concluded with a public concert.

Bullock also attended a conducting seminar in Arizona in January and learned some new ways handbells are being played.

“The interesting thing about English Hand Bells is they are still coming up with new sounds,” Bullock said. “They have been around for centuries, but we are still coming up with new ways to use the new sounds.”

Like the bells themselves, the Westminster Bell Choir includes a variety of ages, religions, experience and backgrounds. From members of the choir still in high school to those who in their 70s, some ringers have been playing for over a decade while others only a year.

Bullock said she believes bells definitely pull people together and finds that the choir is also an interfaith group of sorts. Some of the ringers attend the First Presbyterian Church, while others are LDS wards, one is Lutheran and another grew up Catholic.

“I think that’s one thing I really like about the group,” Bullock said. “It does sort of cut across different boundaries.”




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