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Bells ring at Bicknell Center during Bell Choir Festival 

Emotion rang through the air with sounds of bells at the Mass Bell Choir Festival Saturday, June 2 under direction of Janis Saket. Saket said she believes music is the language of the emotion, exemplifying such in the Pittsburg area bell choir performances. 

The annual Mass Bell Choir Festival, hosted by the Bicknell Family Center for the Arts, originated as a way to improve bell technique. Saket thought further to use it as an opportunity to analyze and learn from other bell choirs around the Pittsburg area.  

“We wanted to interact and we all think that’s been valuable for us,” Saket said. “It helps us to find new, varied ways of playing. We all learned from each other.” 

Bell choir music involves an ensemble of members each playing a lineup of different pitched bells in a variety of different ways. During the concert, the audience experienced the unique music and watched the members move from bell to bell playing different techniques. Also included with the bells were chimes, a bell-like instrument. 

The different bell choirs must be well-versed in several techniques, as the pieces played required multiple switches between styles of playing in order to create different effects. For example, the group Bells of the Balkans used the chimes to replicate the sound of an organ in their rendition of the hymn tune, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” 

“One of the greatest assets is the diversity,” Saket said. “We’ve done jazz, we’ve done gospel. We’ve even done a little film music.”  

Saket is director for Bells of the Balkans, the “core group,” named due to its members playing in other bell choirs as well. She focuses on a need for passion, as she uses many directing techniques to motivate and bond with her players. 

“If there’s no passion, forget it,” she said. “We all have the passion to make a joyful noise. … If you look at the music, you’ll go blind. I’ve hexed this music.” 

Karen Shepherd, community member, said she was very excited to attend this bell festival. 

“It’s just an awesome experience,” Shepherd said. “Watching the precision is just amazing.” 

Shepherd’s expertise with bell choir music extends past the general concertgoer’s experience, as she has performed with both her own church bell choir and the Bells of the Balkans on numerous occasions.  

“I think of it as a nice non-symphonic evening because the classical symphony orchestra can scare a lot of people,” she said.  

Shepherd is a regular contributor to the Pitt State Choir and commented that being a part of a musical ensemble, such as the bell choirs, is a joy.  

The audience got a chance to dance along with the music as the Donna Lyerla Ensemble took the stage for an arrangement of the Twist and asked the auditorium to join their performance. Audience members of all ages stood and danced to the 60s tune. 

The festival concluded in a performance of a Jamaican rhumba by the Bells of the Balkans, or the “house band” as Bicknell Center director Joe Firman referred to them. During this number the ensemble made sounds not only with their bells but also with their voices. They all called out in a set of hoops and hollers, initiated by ensemble member Margaret Neil.  

The Mass Bell Choir Festival was a concert in prelude to the upcoming Raleigh Ringers performance, an award-winning bell choir based out of Raleigh, North Carolina. They will perform as part of the 6th  Annual Pittsburg Chamber Music Festival Monday, June 18. 

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