WINTHROP — After she lost her voice, ringing handbells became Lee Gilman’s new instrument.

For many members of the Winthrop Area Handbell Ringers, participating in the group is a way to get back into music, a passion that started early in life as they learned to read music and play musical instruments in schools.

“We’re a good community of people,” said director Laura Beganwald, who has been playing for around 12 years and conducting for four.

Simply meeting to play isn’t a casual occasion. Playing a number of annual concerts around the Winthrop area — around five at Christmastime and around as many in the spring, each concert with 10 pieces — takes many rehearsals and diligence for the members, and the songs are something they practice weekly.

During practice on Feb. 21, group members played some of their favorite music — occasionally giggling as they missed a note or whacking their sheet music when it didn’t stay open. With spring concerts planned, it will take many more rehearsals to work out the kinks and perform for an audience that never will know how the notes first sounded.

Or know that the group, which usually plays with 12 ringers, is down to just eight.

Not only is the group rehearsing just to play in concert, its most experienced ringers are ringing for multiple players. For Ginger Smith, this requires some fitness as she plays the deeper notes of the largest bells, 12 in all.

Members of the Winthrop Area Handbell Ringers laugh while rehearsing Feb. 21 in Winthrop. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

Placed out, all of these bells take up the length of the table. Smith quickly moves from side to side of the table, challenging the precision of her movements from her fingertips to her toes as she moves from one end of the table to another. Normally, at least two players would ring that many bells; three ringers would be comfortable.

Improvising is something the group is used to doing. Best friends Ginny Foster and Priscilla Stred fell on a curb, one injuring her left hand, while the other injured her right. While they healed, they started playing as partners in one position.

“Between the two of them, they were still one handbell ringer,” Beganwald said. 

But how long can the group — which is playing at only 75 percent capacity — play before the audience notices their struggles or players feel the frustration of the added stress?

That question is being asked by other central Maine organizations that also are losing members.

Walter Boomsma holds many roles in the Maine State Grange and his local Grange, the Valley Grange No. 144, in Guilford.

“Holding that many officer positions doesn’t create diversity,” said Boomsma, who has authored “Exploring traditions — Celebrating the Grange Way of Life.”

In the Valley Grange, he is treasurer, lecturer and publicity director; at the state level, he is the communications director.

The Grange, Boomsma said, is viewed as a declining organization. Granges have been closing, but conversely, others are vibrant, he’s observed. Some Maine Granges, for example, have adopted a theater focus, and their membership trends younger.

The history of the Grange shows that its purpose has changed through the years. After the Civil War, it supported agriculture, getting farmers together the way a union supports employees, while also giving an opportunity for socialization. Now many Granges don’t even have farmers as members. Family and children are a bigger focus.

“An organization that is relevant has relevance,” Boomsma said. “Passion tends to attract passion.”

Members of the Winthrop Area Handbell Ringers rehearse Feb. 21 in Winthrop. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

How to find that relevance is a challenge, especially for members that don’t want the Grange to change.

“Part of the struggle is how to balance the traditions and ritual with new ways of thinking,” Boomsma said. “Declining attendance means we need to start asking ourselves some questions. They may be more important than the answers.”

Boomsma mused that while many Granges typically have older members — he’s 71 — he doesn’t think age is the reason attendance is declining. He speculated that time is the culprit — something retired individuals are more likely to have.

“Younger people don’t have discretionary time,” he said.

Parents of children work, and after work and school, they dart in many directions, such as to a child’s sports practice.

The handbell ringers agree that retirement affords the time for extracurricular activities. Their average age is 75, according to Begenwald’s husband, Joe.

Their weekly meeting time is 3:30 to 5 p.m. Thursdays, a time of day that might conflict with work or a child’s after-school activities.

“The fact that we ring in the afternoon means it’s hard for a lot of people that are working to come,” said Meg Cook, president of the handbell ringers. “We talked about moving our rehearsals to night, but that’s harder. Some people don’t like to drive at night.”

“I think our rehearsal time is what does it,” Begenwald said.

“Groups affiliated with churches have an easier time, I think, of it all together because they have a built-in place to rehearse and they have a built-in core of people to draw from,” Cook added.

Though the group now rehearses at the United Methodist Church, they are not affiliated with the church.

The Ancient Ones of Maine is a living history club based in Canton that does demonstrations and teaches history about Maine from the late 1600s to the Revolutionary War era. Members dress depending on their preferred persona such as Revolutionary War soldiers, colonials or explorers. Members think it’s a good place for families with children.

“We’ve got some younger people that are coming, so we’re succeeding a little bit,” said Ray Hamilton, the club’s president. “We’d like to see more.”

He perceives youth to being more attracted to electronic things than getting into the outdoors.

“But once they get exposed to it, they love it,” he said. 

Josh Salisbury, who lives in Vermont, re-enacts with his family, including his two children, around the East, including with the Ancient Ones.

“(Re-enacting) is enriching for children to experience the history,” he said.

Along with time, the financial investment needed to participate in the club can make it hard for families to participate.

“It’s hard to get new people interested in re-enacting because it’s expensive and takes a lot of time,” Salisbury said.

While membership itself is inexpensive at $10 per family for a year, the cost to become outfitted is high. A re-enactor since childhood, Salisbury has seen the cost of linen and wool increase exponentially. He said it could cost up to $500 to become outfitted with period clothing and shelter.

Hamilton said the club invites interested members of the public to attend its first encampment while wearing their modern clothing.

“When they return, we ask that they try to wear at least one item from the period, maybe get a shirt,” Hamilton said.

Electronics didn’t exist in the 1600s and 1700s, and re-enacting gives participants a chance to unplug.

Boomsma sees people today relying on interaction through social media, not by participating in a club or civic organization.

“I think people will discover that social media isn’t the satisfying sense of community that it feels like at first,” he said. “(People) will want to touch people, literally and figuratively.”

Recruiting new members has taken creativity — and controversy — for the Grange, and it has taken advantage of the convenience of electronic communication. Some Granges have less rigid traditions, and some have created online meetings.

“Grangers can hook up their laptop and go to a meeting,” Boomsma said.

The handbell ringers rely on word of mouth to recruit new members, along with community concerts.

The Ancient Ones of Maine also use public exposure to draw interest. The club holds public demonstrations, including encampments at the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray. He said the club also is considering starting youth days on Sundays where kids can learn to start a fire, take nature walks, throw tomahawks and practice primitive archery. 

“People will prioritize how they spend their time,” Boomsma said. “They find time to do things that are important to them.”

Those interested in joining the Winthrop Area Handbell Ringers may communicate with the ringers’ president, Meg Cook, at 624-1300 and [email protected] or Laura Begenwald at [email protected] at 480-1404. To join Ancient Ones of Maine, Ray Hamilton can be reached at 897-5058. Those interested in participating with a Grange may contact a local Grange or visit mainestategrange.org.


Abigail Austin — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @AbigailAustinKJ

 

 


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