Imagine handbell choirs from about a dozen different churches all playing together in a concert.
Area residents have the chance to see just that when St. Peter Lutheran Church in Weyauwega hosts a regional Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod Handbell Festival on Saturday and Sunday, April 18 and 19, in its school gym.
This is the first time the church is hosting the festival, and members of the church’s senior handbell choir encourage people to attend the concert, which begins at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 19.
“It almost takes your breath away when everybody starts playing in the gym for the first time,” said Kerry Koehler, a member of St. Peter’s senior handbell choir and the regional site coordinator for the upcoming festival.
The concert will last just over an hour and will include a freewill offering to help defray the cost of the festival.
There will be 15 selections. A vocal choir and instrumentalists will be part of some songs. The music spans the church year, which means there will be a variety of types and tempos.
“There are two different choirs, so not all of them will be ringing at the same time,” said Koehler. “There are some numbers where we are ringing all together.”
There are three levels of handbell choirs.
Jubilate has the least difficult music for younger choirs.
Laudate has more challenging music for intermediate-level choirs, and Exaltate has the most difficult music for experienced choirs.
The April 19 concert will include a Laudate Choir and an Exaltate Choir.
Becky Miller is the director of St. Peter’s senior handbell choir, a role she has held for 21 years.
She will be among the concert’s four directors and will direct four songs.
A total of 163 people are registered for the festival, representing congregations from 13 different communities, Miller said.
St. Peter Lutheran Church is working with Cheryl Diener, who is the director of choirs at Immanuel Lutheran Church, in Waupaca.
That church began participating in the festival in 1983 and hosted the festival in both 1993 and 2003.
When a committee formed in 1994 to plan and oversee all WELS handbell festivals, Diener was appointed the chair.
“There were many congregations that had handbells in their churches. It was a big thing to bring them all together for a concert,” Koehler said.
There are three regions in the state, with each one hosting its own festival. Every couple of years, they come together for a national festival.
More than 150 WELS congregations have handbell choirs today.
Miller said St. Peter’s choir always enjoys attending the festival and practicing with different people.
The choir has been working on the songs for this year’s concert for some time.
“Every year, in the summer, there is a committee that gets together and selects the music,” Koehler said. “All the handbell choir directors get the music.”
Miller ordered the music last summer. The choir used the music for this year’s festival in church services as it learned it.
“The challenge,” Koehler said, “is the one day when we all must come together. We’ve all been practicing individually with our directors. It’s a challenge for all our directors.”
St. Peter’s senior handbell choir formed in 1985 and has three octaves of handbells and three octaves of handchimes. Its 37 individual handbells are played by 11 ringers.
From September through May, the choir practices one hour a week. It rings for worship services throughout the year and also twice a year at local nursing homes.
Koehler said the music they play is meant to enhance services.
On Saturday, April 18, the choir will join 12 other handbell choirs as they practice for the April 19 concert.
Miller likes when everything comes together.
Koehler said, “It’s an experience for us who have done it, no matter how many years, and an experience for those who come to hear it.”