For most people, the sound of bells ringing early in the morning is hardly music to their ears.
The 12 members of the Midway Hand Bell Ringers aren't like most people, however. They get up at 5 a.m. each day to make music - beautiful, inspiring music - by ringing bells.Actually, they are not just ringing the bells: they are shaking, tolling, trilling and pealing them, and even tapping them with mallets. What results is, as some audience members have said, "awesome".
Ruth Olsen, who now directs the group, thought such a choir would make a nice addition to Midway's Swiss Christmas celebration.
Hand bell choirs, long popular in Europe, actually originated in England.
"Bells are usually found in churches," Olsen said. "Not until the last 20 years have bells broken out of just being used for sacred music.
"Now it's growing to where schools and other organizations are realizing the beauty of bell playing, and the dexterity, teamwork and consideration of others it teaches."
The Midway Boosters Club took on the task of raising the $10,000 needed to purchase a full concert set (61) of bells. The bells range in price from $500 for the largest to $36 for smaller bells, and come in five octaves.
"Many people in town bought a bell in memory of a relative who had immigrated here from Switzerland," said Jerry Zenger, a choir member. Zenger became a bell player because it seemed like something his grandfather, a Swedish immigrant and member of an early Midway brass band, would have done if he were still alive. Zenger's mother, Emily, is also a choir member.
Each bell handle is inscribed with the name of the person who donated the funds for its purchase. The largest bell, which weighs more than 10 pounds, was purchased by Midway Mayor Gene Probst.
Casting problems at the bell manufacturing plant in Plumsteadville, Pa., delayed delivery of the bells. They arrived five weeks prior to the Labor Day celebration of Swiss Days.
"We were in a quandry about whether to start the group," said Olsen. "No one had ever rung a hand bell before, and it takes practice and precision to make it sound like music and not just a lot of bells ringing whenever."
The bells were put on display in the council chambers, along with a video display of bell choirs performing.
"Through that people came with hot little hands, saying they were interested," Olsen said. "Some had never played an instrument before and some didn't even read music, but they made a great commitment to the choir."
After practicing for two hours every morning for several weeks, the group performed six songs during the Swiss Days celebration, to a standing room only crowd.
The audience loved it, as have audiences since.
Part of the charm of the bells is their beauty, Olsen said. The bells are made of brass, and during a performance, they rest on foam padded tables draped in black cloth. Choir members dress in Swiss costumes, and wear gloves to avoid touching, and thus tarnishing, the bells. Each member plays four to six bells. The group's repertoire includes "Grandfather's Clock," "Abide with me," and "It's a Small World."
But Christmas songs, which the group will be performing during a Swiss Christmas concert Dec. 3 in Midway, are perhaps the most appealing.
After all, what could be more spectacular than hearing 61 bells play "Jingle Bells?" "Silver Bells"? The Midway Hand Bell Ringers play that, too.