This is not your average workout: Bell ringing?

This is not your average workout: Bell ringing?


Betsy Smith & Susan Moeller

My hand weights make music. Can yours?

At least once a week, I play in a choir that rings English handbells, a musical tradition going back almost 200 years.

But hold the ding-a-ling jokes.

For my bell buddies and me, hanging out together and swinging brass bells weighing anywhere from a few ounces to more than 10 pounds for an hour or two is not only good for our bodies but also our brains.

“Bell playing is an excellent, excellent source of visual and cognitive skill,” says my fellow ringer Julia Rush, an occupational therapist at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital Cape Cod.

Joyce Joakim of Hyannis, one of the three 80-somethings in our choir, has also been playing bells for about 20 years. Unlike me, she’s a real musician. She plays organ and piano and has sung in choirs since she was a girl. Bell ringing keeps her going, she says.

“There are so many aspects to it: the thrill of the music, the thrill of the technique, the thrill of playing together, the thrill of making the music come together. I’ve had a lot of arthritis in my shoulders. If I weren’t doing something, I probably couldn’t move my arm. I almost have to do it.”

Even if a piece doesn’t go perfectly, bell ringing is good for our egos.

“We get out of the choir loft and people are coming up to us and saying, ‘Oh that was awesome,’” says Julia. “We feel good that we’ve accomplished playing a piece of music and then we get people coming up and telling us we did a good job. There’s a huge social positive reward factor going.”

Handbells Come in All Sizes and Sounds

As Julia says, we all want to be part of a community. And in the last 20 years, my community has included the dozen or so bell ringers who gather on Tuesday nights in the meetinghouse of West Parish of Barnstable. Specific ringers may come and go, depending on commitments and schedules. But when I step in the meetinghouse door on a cold winter’s night – late as usual – and hear the bells in the balcony, I know that for 90 minutes, we will have fun, learn something new and be in a place apart from the everyday world.

No one ever said that about the gym.

Handbells come in octaves, including sharps and flats, and a five-octave set these days can cost almost $25,000.  The smallest bells weigh a few ounces; the largest over 15 pounds. Each is marked with the note and octave number and has a looped plastic handle. I play smack in the middle: B5, B-flat 5, C5, C-sharp 5 – each bell weighing about two pounds. Most choirs, and there are about a dozen on the Cape, have three to five octaves.

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A BIG thank you to Big Nick's Ride for the Fallen and the generous donation to the Cape Cod Healthcare Blood Center!

A BIG thank you to Big Nick's Ride for the Fallen and the generous donation to the Cape Cod Healthcare Blood Center!