WINTHROP — Bells sounding Saturday in Winthrop High School rang through the gymnasium walls and could be heard in the parking lots.

The musical bells interspersed with chimes trilled, clapped and resounded as more than 120 handbell ringers joined in a mass rehearsal of “Celebrate with Ringing” by Michael Mazzatenta under the direction of guest artist Peter Coulombe, of Old South Church in Boston.

The 2016 Maine Spring Ring was a special event for the bell choirs, most of whom usually play alone in their churches or communities.

He urged them to speed up some of the ringing and avoid “slopping damping (quieting) on the chimes. Keep it legato.”

Other times he wanted the sound louder and faster. “The heart rate of the audience can adjust to the musical vibration,” he said. “Accenting those syncopated notes can quite physically affect the audience.”

“When we can get people together like this, it’s a unique experience,” Coulombe said after the first rehearsal ended. It was his first visit to Maine.

Coulombe’s job was to merge “12 unique styles and try to make a single sound,” he said, noting that the music had been picked last June, so the handbell choirs had time to practice individually.

For workshops and smaller rehearsal sections, the choirs were divided into “tins” — those who played the less demanding music — and “coppers” — those who played more complicated music.

“Make sure you’re moving a little bit. I’d like to see some swagger,” Coulombe told the tins as they worked on perfecting “I’m Just a Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” by Tammy Waldrop.

Ringers used mallets to strike the larger, deeper-sounding bells for the syncopated rhythm, and some ringers held two bells in each gloved hand as they made their way through the music. Bells were picked up and quickly replaced on the heavily padded tables.

Coulombe congratulated them afterward: “You definitely have the mood of the piece that you’re playing.”

Then they peppered him with questions, leading to him compare a “gyro” in bells to the motion of stirring a large batch of brownies. “Think of it as a face plant. Gyro, kiss the bell,” he said, demonstrating the move and keeping the bell at shoulder level. “No lassoes.”

Sue Evans, of Old Orchard Beach, Maine chairwoman of the Handbell Musicians of America, said Saturday’s event was the 22nd handbell festival in Maine. They have used Winthrop previously as well. “Maine is a big state, and you try to find a central location,” Evans said. “We do it every other year.”

In alternate years, handbell ringers attend the Area 1 Festival Conference, usually held at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Area 1 of the Handbell Musicians of America includes all of New England and the Canadian Maritime Provinces. In all, there are 12 areas in the Handbell Musicians of America. The highlight of Saturday’s event was a 4:30 p.m. concert by the massed coppers and tins choirs.

Laura Begenwald, director of the Winthrop Area Handbell Ringers, served as registrar for the event and as a workshop clinician.

Evans offered a brief history of handbells, saying they derive from the traditional church bells that you would have heard ringing from an English church towers as bell ringers pulled on ropes. “They needed to be able to practice,” she said. “They couldn’t practice without waking up the neighborhood.”

Handbells allowed them to practice in relative comfort and quiet.

She laughed when asked who could join. “We take people who know nothing about ringing and don’t know how to read music and teach them how to do it,” she said. “Choirs often have people who are very fine musicians and others who are just learning.”

She said it is fun, but warns that the handbell is a difficult instrument to play. Coulombe called it “quirky.”

There are octaves of chimes as well. Chimes look like thick tuning forks with clappers on the outside.

Handbell ringing is a lifelong interest for some. Evans, now 71, started her handbell ringing as a teenager.

Among those handbell choirs at Saturday’s event were the Lincoln Lion Ringers, from Lincoln Middle School in Portland with director Audrey Cabral.

Member Laini Frager, 12, learned about the handbell ringers when she was in sixth grade there. “I decided to join,” she said. She also plays clarinet and violin and is a vocalist.

Her older sister, Lillian, 16, who has been playing handbells for about six years and attends Deering High School, rejoined the Lions group for Saturday’s event after two middle-schoolers were unable to attend it.

The young group keeps its octaves of handbells in good repair by fundraising, an almost constant task, said their mother, who acted as a chaperone.

Both girls also are involved in sports, including ice hockey.

The bells themselves are mostly owned by churches or other nonprofit organizations.

A set of three-octaves — 39 bells — can run about $7,000, Evans said.

They are handled reverently, with ringers wearing gloves to protect the bells from oil on the hands.

Upcoming handbell concerts in central Maine include a 7 p.m. May 14 concert at Chestnut Street Baptist Church, Camden, and 4 p.m. May 14 at Broad Bay Church, Waldoboro, both offered by Penobscot Bay Ringers.

Other central Maine bellringer choirs include the Over the River Ringers in Skowhegan, the Paris Ringers in Brunswick and the Rangeley Ringers in Rangeley.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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