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Kori Bourne, Bryson Asels, Jennifer Taptuna and Lisa Hill, four of nine members of the Diamond Jenness Secondary School Handbell Choir pose with their director, Jennifer Tweedie and her son Spencer Tweedie-Pitre in June. - NNSL file photo

Ring in the season

Jennifer Geens
Northern News Services

Hay Rive (Dec 06/04) - The Diamond Jenness Secondary School Handbell Choir kicked off the holiday season over the weekend, opening for the Peters-Drury Quartet at the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre in Yellowknife.

The handbell choir also performed a Christmas carol with the jazz/swing group from Whitehorse.

The Hay River choir's current line-up is Jennifer Taptuna, Bryson Asels, Rena Squirrel, Kori Bourne, Chelsey Langkops, Kari William, Cassandra Norris and Jessica and Lisa Hill. The kids range in age from 13 to 16.

Buffalo Airways flew the nine ringers and their director to and from Yellowknife for their performance, saving the group a six-hour drive.

"Christmas is our busy season," said Jennifer Tweedie, a teacher at DJSS and the choir's director.

The group has 11 shows booked for this month, mostly in Hay River.

Ringing handbells is an unusual and challenging form of music. Hay River's handbell choir began in 1996, with teachers Kim Klassen, Jack Cooper and Naomi Holmes and a $7,000 Community Action Awareness Committee grant to purchase two octaves' worth of bells.

In 2001, the choir raised enough money to buy a third octave.

Though Tweedie played flute and saxophone in high school, she had never seen or heard handbells until she moved to Hay River.

When the choir director left, she found herself pitching in to keep the program going.

"That's what the North does to you," she laughed.

Beginners start by being responsible for one note out of three octaves. Listening and concentration are imperative.

"They have to follow what everyone else is doing and come in at the right time," said Tweedie.

The ringers practise twice a week, two hours at a time. By the end of their first year with the choir, the students' timing is better and they can read music.

The time commitment is lengthy -- the choir practises throughout the school year, from September to June -- and if a member is missing, a song will be missing notes. Tweedie estimated the rehearsal attendance rate at about 90 per cent.

"They're probably the most dedicated and responsible students in the school," she said.

The choir is focused now on raising the $14,000 they need to travel to a handbell festival held every two years in Ontario.

The choir has attended the festival twice before.

Most handbell choirs in Canada are based out of churches. Tweedie said the average age of the 500 ringers at the last festival was 54.

Since they usually end up travelling the farthest to get to the festival, the DJSS handbell choir definitely attracts some attention. Other participants even give them standing ovations.

"We're quite a spectacle," said Tweedie.

Though the month of December is their busiest time of the year, extreme cold can affect the bells, so they have to turn down invitations to perform at outdoor events.

The swinging part that strikes the inner bell surface, producing the ring noise, is called the clapper.

The clapper attaches to the bell by what is called the spring. The bells are made of brass, but the springs are plastic and they can get brittle in cold, dry weather.

During the recording of their Christmas CD Ringing in the Season earlier this year, one of their springs broke and they didn't have a spare.

The spring ended up being repaired with duct tape.

"It was a Red Green moment," said Tweedie.

A community grant purchased the original bells and though all the ringers are DJSS students, the choir is totally funded through the community, not the school.

One thing the students would like to do is play more contemporary music, but the latest pop tunes tend not to have handbell versions. Tweedie works on transposing melodies to handbell scores, but progress is slow.

"They've been after me for a while," she said.