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Bell ensemble chimes in to local music scene

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By Patrick Smith

The New River Bell Ensemble (NRBE), formed in September 2013, is slated to perform its second official concert this weekend, when the group offers concerts in Independence, Galax and Sparta, N.C.

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Troutdale neighbors Susan Kandies and Tina Cunningham decided to start the local bell ensemble after a discussion about their past days as bell ringers in other groups. From there, the duo presented their idea to the Arts Council of the Twin Counties in August 2013, and the NRBE was accepted as a part of the Arts Council and received further guidance from the American Guild of Hand Bell Ringers.

The group received additional funding leftover from the disbanded Grayson Community Theater Group, which Kandies and her husband Jerry were a part of. The Historic 1908 Courthouse Foundation also supported the newly formed group, and encouraged the NRBE to hold its rehearsals in the Baldwin Auditorium.

For the group’s first rehearsal in September, Kandies admitted her surprise that a handful of local ringers arrived to learn more about the NRBE. “We had no idea when we first advertised the group if we’d get five people or 50,” she laughed.

The group has since managed to retain nearly all of its original members, and is currently made up of 11 ringers under the direction of Terry Whidden, who is a native of Florida and has led several other ringer groups in the past.

Those 11 members, all of whom have previous musical experience, come from Grayson, Alleghany (N.C.), and Wythe Counties and the City of Galax to enjoy their unique musical hobby and to forget about their everyday lives for a few hours of rehearsal “After a long day at work, it’s a great way to relax,” said member Allison Semones.

“Everything else falls away except for the music,” added Cunningham.

The NRBE began rehearsals with bells borrowed from Sparta Methodist Church, but were quickly able to purchase three octaves of English hand bells on eBay, which they used to ring in the Christmas season during their first performance at the Arts Council’s Holiday Extravaganza in December and will use in the upcoming concerts this weekend.

The NRBE continues to raise funds for equipment to use in future concerts, and in addition to donations being accepted at the door, this weekend’s concerts will include a special deal in which anyone who donates above a set amount will have the option of inscribing their name or a special message on the handle of a newly purchased bell.

When speaking about public interest in the group, Kandies added that, with enough interest, the NRBE may look to begin a second group intended for beginners or for those who haven’t played a musical instrument in some time when rehearsals reconvene in the fall.

“I’ve loved the comradery that has developed among the ringers in this group and the way we’ve been able to expand our repertoire,” said Kandies. “It’s neat to have a new musical organization in the community and to provide something different for people to be a part of.”

Cunningham said she has also enjoyed the relationship that has developed among the group’s members. “We’re allowed to call ourselves ‘dingalings,’ but no one else is,” joked Cunningham.

• The NRBE will perform at the Historic 1908 Courthouse Friday, June 27, at 7 p.m.; at First United Methodist Church in Galax June 29 at 3 p.m.; and at Sparta United Methodist Church June 29 at 7 p.m. Admission is by donation. The program will include “Memory” from Cats; “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music; classic spirituals: “Dry Bones, Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho, Simple Gifts, a God Bless America/Battle Hymn of the Republic” medley, “You Raise Me Up” and other well known pieces. Along with the classic English Hand-bells, the Ensemble will incorporate Petit-Franzen bells and chimes as well as piano and horn accompaniment on several of the selections.

• For information on joining the New River Bell Ensemble, call (276) 579-9856, or contact the Arts Council at (276) 238-1217. The Arts Council can also be contacted via email at info@artsculturalcouncil.org, and general information is available at www.artsculturalcouncil.org.