When they started to ring, spirits soared

Tim Waugh was guest conductor and clinician at Georgia Baptist Mission Board’s 2018 Handbell Festival hosted at Central Baptist Church. He stressed technique and the emotionally expressive nature of music.
Tim Waugh was guest conductor and clinician at Georgia Baptist Mission Board’s 2018 Handbell Festival hosted at Central Baptist Church. He stressed technique and the emotionally expressive nature of music. Special to The Telegraph

More than 200 musicians came to Warner Robins March 9-10 — and they brought bells.

Groups from 17 churches came from across the state for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board’s 2018 Handbell Festival hosted by Central Baptist Church.

Organizers said the festival offered fellowship among handbell choirs, a chance to hear and be heard among their peers and clinics for inspiration and improved playing skills.

“It’s an annual festival for our handbell choirs which we hold in high value,” said Eddy Oliver of the board’s worship and music department. “This has been a very positive, joyful festival with good attendance. I’d say attendance has be increasing the past several years and having it in Middle Georgia is a convenient location. All Central Baptist did to host and organize the event and make hotel arrangements for everyone has really been a blessing.”

Sharon Joyner is a member of Central Baptist’s handbell choir, the JoyBells, directed by Merella Warder.

“It’s wonderful to come learn and get new techniques and to play with other handbell choirs,” Joyner said. “I’ve been playing with our handbell choir at Central for 30 years — they even played at my wedding. We practice once a week and play in services every couple of months. At Christmas, we play a lot more.”

A man who knows bells

Joyner called the festival’s guest clinician, Tim Waugh, “fabulous.” Waugh provided instruction for both choir members and for their leaders.

Waugh is a conductor, composer and performance arts educator who worked in school and church settings and now teaches workshops, clinics and seminars in various performance mediums like handbell, choral, church music and musical theater. Known nationally and internationally, he is especially well known for his 50 years of work with handbell musicians. He leads a dozen or more handbell clinics a year.

Living in West Virginia, Waugh is now the artist in residence at Beckley Presbyterian Church.

As well as teaching technique, Waugh said it’s vitally important handbell musicians understand that they must convey a song’s emotion.

“People prepare ahead of time so they come to the festival knowing the notes and the rhythm of the songs they’ll be playing,” he said. “Then my job really is to pull from them the music beyond what’s on the page. The emotion. The spirit of the music. As performers, as a choir, their goal is not only to let people hear something nice but to have people, to have their congregations, feel what the music is expressing. Music is about emotion and story and it should come alive when it’s performed. It can reach people on a very deep level. Not always consciously, but very really.”

As the combined handbell choirs practiced together, Waugh again and again stopped them not only to encourage, correct or speak to technique, he also stopped them to make them aware of how what they were playing and how it sounded could inspire feeling and emotion.

One piece involved a portion of the story of the Old Testament figure King David. At times, Waugh stopped the mass group and related David’s story and what David might have been feeling with the music and the emotion it could convey their audiences.

Waugh said performers could literally tell an audience the facts of a story or they could, through their music, carry their audience along a musical path to feel something of the same emotions themselves.

“That,” Waugh said, “is what we’re after.”

A past and a future for handbells

Waugh said the weekend festival at Central was one of the larger ones he’s done recently and that only a few others, such as one in Utah and another in New England, were larger drawing upwards of 1,000 participants.

Waugh and others at the festival acknowledged the popularity of handbell choirs ebbs and flows through the years and was at a height decades ago. However, they all said they see a rise in popularity.

Regardless, Warder, the director of Central’s handbell program, said the church has had an active group since the 1970s when it was first organized by her late husband, Bill Warder.

Joshua McClain, associate pastor of worship and music at Central, said the program will continue and adds value to participants and the congregation.

“It promotes musicianship,” he said. “One of the original reasons handbell choirs were often started was to teach music reading, so it helps in a church’s music education and it provides beautiful music. Another plus is that it enhances fellowship. It teachers teamwork and it creates unity. It is a handbell choir, after all. You can’t really have much of a solo handbell performance.”

Waugh frequently noted his preference of calling handbell players musicians rather than ringers.

As host church putting together the festival together, JoyBell member Judy Moore took lead responsibilities while the other 17 choir members formed committees to take on various hosting tasks.

“We also got a great deal of help from students of the Beta Clubs at Northside High School and Veterans High School,” she said. “We’ve been working hard to see that everyone had a good experience and were very glad to welcome them all here from across Georgia.”

Contact writer Michael W. Pannell at