SKOWHEGAN — The handbell ringers begin trickling into the basement of the All Saints Episcopal Church every Tuesday around 4 p.m.

Practice starts at 4:30, but there’s lots of setting up to do — moving furniture, turning on the lights, setting up music stands and card tables, and of course the set of more than two dozen bells. They chat and sip coffee as they set up — 11 women and one man ranging in age from eighth grade to “well into retirement.”

The Over the River Ringers (previously known as the Riverside Ringers) have been playing at parades, concerts and church services in Maine since the group was founded in 1962. They’ve been meeting religiously for weekly practice in the basement of the church for years simply because it’s something they love to do. But lately, they’ve also had their biggest performance ever to prepare for.

On June 29 the group will play at Carnegie Hall in New York City as part of the Gala Benefit Concert for the Saint Thomas More Chapel at Yale, a celebration honoring a new music initiative at Yale University.

“It’s going to be our biggest event ever,” said Gail Kelly, the group’s director. “It’s a once in a lifetime thing.”

According to the Handbell Musicians of America, there are more than 300 handbell choirs around the United States. The group hosts annual conferences every summer, and this year representatives from Carnegie Hall invited New England area conference participants to play at the gala, which takes place just a few days after the area conference concludes.


Eight of the Over the River Ringers’ 12 members will be playing in the benefit concert.

Until recently, the group was located at the Federated Church of Skowhegan, but they recently moved their practices to the basement of the Episcopal Church. They often play at church events, but they’re not limited to religious themed songs. There are 11 players, plus a director, and they each have at least two bells they are assigned to play. Each bell represents a note on the musical scale ranging four octaves.

The current members say the bells weren’t hard to learn, although most of them have musical backgrounds, having played other instruments or been music teachers.

Husband and wife Elaine and Jon Loekle, of East Madison, are music teachers who also organized the Skowhegan Community Orchestra. “It’s different because you have only a certain assignment, but you have to look at the whole piece of music,” Elaine Loekle, 60, said. “You pick yours out, but you still have to pay attention. It’s like playing piano with 11 people on the bench.”

Kelly, of Cornville, is also a music teacher in SAD 54. Her daughter, 20-year-old Robin Kelly, is one of the group’s youngest players. She said she started playing the handbells in a youth handbell group when she was in fourth grade and was a substitute at first for the Ringers.

“We have turned people away, although if they are willing we do take substitutes,” said Gail Kelly, who is just the third director in the more than 50-year history of the group.


Those who join tend to stay for a long time.

“I enjoy playing the bells, but the camaraderie is the best part,” said Ann Cook, of Skowhegan.

Sara Everett of Skowhegan, a substitute for 10 years before recently becoming a full-time member in September, agreed. She said she was hesitant to join at first because of the time commitment of practices and performances and waited until her kids were out of the house.

“You don’t get out,” Everett said. “Once you’re here, you’re here for life.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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