According to handbell ringing history sites, there is no record of when the bell was invented. Pictures show that it was used by different civilizations in religious rites before the development of a written language. The regular tolling of bells was important because it was the only way people were able to tell time. During the Middle Ages, bells were hung in doorways to ward off suspected evil powers. A visitor would ring the bell to drive the spirits away, then go inside, which is likely the origin of the present day doorbell.
Through their early years, bells played an important part in dispelling superstitions and handbells continued their development within the church. Tune ringing became popular in the 1700s when the more musical bell ringers discovered that there were additional possibilities for ringing handbells. They were able to ring carols and hymns and went on to ring chamber music and popular classics. By the middle of the 19th century tune ringing had reached its heyday. It was revived in the United States by Mrs. A.A. Shurcliff, who returned from a trip to England with a set of handbells. She introduced their sound to others and interest snowballed. The American Guild of Handbell Ringers was founded in 1954 in her home on the East Coast.
Ron Theile started ringing handbells as a young boy. “I love the spiritual and uplifting sound they make,” he says.
In 1994, as a teacher at Chester W. Nimitz Middle School in Huntington Beach, the only school in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s central area at that time to offer handbell classes, Theile set out to prove that music can make a difference in the academic life of students. He says that his students have proven this theory through self-improvement in their grades, the way they look at themselves and others and with their musical achievements.
The extraordinary accomplishments of the bell ringers at Mark Twain Middle School in Mar Vista have been produced under the directorship of Theile. The middle school’s youthful ringing group was formed in September 2000, during a school lunch break.
Now the class is offered as an elective to all sixth, seventh and eighth grade students for one hour, five days a week, which enables them to attain a higher level of musicianship throughout the school year. Even Venice High School students have participated in after-school rehearsals and instruction to keep their skills sharp, Theile says.
The Mark Twain Ringers are a multicultural group of young people who have devoted much time to perfecting the art of English-style handbell ringing. For many of the students, their music is an outlet for self expression.
Theile relates a story about one student whose father was shot while riding a motorcycle. She came to school the next day but her father said that she should be home with her family. She replied, “I am.” Another student says, “I like to be happy. It (bell ringing) is like swimming in a pool and not having to come up for air.” Theile says the students’ mastery helps them focus on both academic and social aspects of their lives.
“Through music, they learn discipline and management skills that help them in the classroom,” he said. “The fact that they are a close family of musicians at school helps them with their interpersonal skills and allows them to create a strong sense of community.” Using motivation, management and musicianship, Theile said he is able to create a handbell choir with members who are not only musically talented, but are good students and well-rounded people. The Mark Twain Ringers have performed at numerous venues. Locally, they have been featured in holiday concerts and events in Venice, Marina del Rey, Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades, Culver City and at various LAUSD functions.
Spreading out a bit, they have also gone to Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, Camp Colby in the Angeles National Forest, Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia and events in Santa Barbara. Each December they have a standing performance schedule ringing holiday music with the Los Angeles Concert Orchestra and the Master Chorale.
In 2006, the Mark Twain Ringers were recognized by the LAUSD Board of Education as official Youth Ambassadors of Southern California. They have also represented young ringers at many venues throughout California, Florida and Nevada.
“Their skill, behavior and dedication have allowed them to participate as adults in American Guild of English Handbell Ringers’ events and workshops,” says Theile.
He noted that this high caliber of musicianship has produced an opportunity of a lifetime for the bell ringers – an invitation to perform at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Theile believes it will be an unforgettable life-changing experience for the ringers as they perform on stage at multiple “Olympic Live” sites throughout London during the games.
Funds have to be raised in order to enable the students to participate, says Theile, who estimates the group will need $100,000 to cover the expenses for this trip. If you would like to help make this become a reality, please send a check made out to Mark Twain Middle School with Mark Twain Ringers noted on it to 2224 Walgrove Ave., Los Angeles CA 90066. Your name will be mentioned on their website and on all printed materials.
“Everyone has their own reason for being generous,” says Theile. “However, I believe that one of the strongest reasons why people give is to feel as if they’re a vital part of the good work being done.” Theile acknowledges that although he is their teacher, they are the ones who have taught him the important lesson about handbell ringing. “For our handbell choir, it’s not about the music,” he says. “They quickly learn that each individual is important to the whole – one is as important as the other. Each member must recognize and respect each other. When this is accomplished, beautiful music is made.” Information about the Mark Twain Ringers, www.handbellringers.com.