[This article has been reposted from the Lowell Sun. See the original article for an additional video.]
TEWKSBURY — It started when his parents put him in the handbell-ringing choir at his church in Newton.
“They needed to have something for this crazy teenager to get involved in,” Edward Henderson Jr. said.
Now 68, Henderson has been director of the Tewksbury-based New England Ringers for 15 years and has been directing other handbell ringers for 30 years.
“From a ringer’s perspective, it’s a rather unique instrument,” Henderson said. “It’s like 13 people playing the piano at one time, where each person is in charge of a few notes. That camaraderie is one of the biggest things that draws people to it.”
The New England Ringers is a regional organization and part of the Handbell Musicians of America.
“We are one of tens of thousands of members of the organization,” Henderson said. “I could say there are more handbell ringers today than there were 10 years ago. Our organization is working very hard to spread the word about the instrument.”
Worldwide, Henderson said there are about 10,000 organizations that are primarily made up of directors. And many are people like Henderson, who direct more than one choir. He also directs at the Tewksbury Congregational Church.
Handbell ringing began in the 1950s in Boston, according to Henderson. According to the Handbell Musicians of America’s website, Boston’s Margaret Shurcliff brought the “love and an enthusiasm for handbells in America.”
The New England Ringers do about six performances annually, including one spring show at Tewksbury Memorial High School that brings together 20 to 30 handbell choirs.
“It’s an acknowledgment of the fact that each person has their own role,” Henderson said. “In the big picture, each person contributes to the end.”
Board of Selectmen Chairman Bruce Panilaitis has been ringing with the Tewksbury Congregational Church choir since he joined the church 12 years ago.
“I enjoy music,” Panilaitis said. “It’s very much a group instrument. It’s very social. It’s just enjoyable to be park of a group.”
Panilaitis participated in handbell ringing at a summer camp as a teenager. For a short period of time, he directed a youth group of handbell ringers at the church.
“It’s certainly across all ages,” Panilaitis said. “We’ve had kids as young as second and third grade all the way up to high school, and adults of all ages.”
Henderson’s wife, Sue Henderson, has been playing handbells for about 35 years. She played for the new England Ringers for five years and is still involved in the handbell choir at Tewksbury Congregational Church.
“I personally thought it was a great way of getting adults and youth together in doing an activity as sort of a blended group,” she said. “That was one of the reasons why I was so interested in bringing handbell ringing into the church.”
Sue Henderson had seen other group activities, like singing choirs, that usually separate into youth and adult groups.
“Unlike a vocal choir, you don’t have to have a good voice,” she said. “Hand chimes can be used by really young children or the elderly who can’t really grasp the bell.”
Sue Henderson left the New England Ringers because of the amount of time she needed to commit to the choir, but did enjoy the time she spent involved with the group.
“It’s a much higher level of ringing and requires a lot more expertise,” she said. “The music is more difficult, so there’s more of a sense of satisfaction.”
Panilaitis and Sue Henderson agree they have a talented director.
“I think attention to detail is critical,” Sue Henderson said. “You need what they call ‘a good ear,’ so being able to hear, when you have 12 or 13 people in front of you, one person who rings a wrong note.
“You also need an enormous amount of patience and a great sense of humor.”
Panilaitis said Ed Henderson has helped to shape overall pleasant atmosphere of the choir.
“We’re lucky to have Ed as a director,” Panilaitis said. “It’s just a lot of fun. It’s a unique instrument, and most people have a lot of fun listening to it if they never get a chance to play it.”
For these ringers, being part of the group is about more than the music.
“It’s brought a lot of joy to me, even though at times it’s been a lot of work,” Sue Henderson said.
Follow Kori Tuitt on Twitter and Tout @KoriTuitt.