Janine Carscadden and her family are arguably the Canadian equivalent to the von Trapp family except they play a uniquely different instrument.
A new resident to Armstrong, Carscadden can still see the gleaming, brass bells beckoning at her grandmother’s house as if it were yesterday.
It all started with a call from her maternal grandmother, who lived in Peterborough, Ont. at the time, that brought Carscadden, then seven years old, and her family to visit.
“She said ‘I have a surprise for you,’” remembers Carscadden, who then resided near Sudbury, Ont. “We got there and I saw all these shining bells laid out. I had never seen anything like it before. Handbells were not known around these parts at that time. They were brand new as not many (handbell) choirs in Canada existed then.”
The family took the bells home, and Carscadden’s mother laid the three-octave set –– that’s 37 handbells, including those for sharp and flat notes –– on the dining room table.
“We learned some pieces and then we entered the Kiwanis Music Festival. Our family had only six members so we recruited another family and we started our own handbell choir,” said Carscadden.
Thirty-five years later, and her grandmother’s handbells are still in use.
In fact, Carscadden’s mother still leads a handbell choir and quartet in Ontario, and her sister, Susan Carscadden-Mifsud, is one of Canada’s most accomplished handbell soloists, a noted conductor, and a clinician who has shared her expertise and love of ringing with directors and choirs across Canada.
The women are sharing the legacy their grandmother started when they join the newly-formed Okanagan Handbell Chorus for a special performance with the Okanagan Symphony called Ringing in the Season, which comes to the Vernon Performing Arts Centre, Sunday.
“This a wonderful experience for me and my family that we can promote more about handbell ringing. It’s also a unique experience to have this level of performance with a professional orchestra,” said Carscadden.
Led by West Kelowna ringer Nikki Atwell, the Okanagan Handbell Chorus was formed after OSO maestra Rosemary Thomson suggested handbells be featured at a Christmas concert. Some time later, Atwell, a past president of the B.C. Guild of English Handbell Ringers, recruited 12 ringers hailing from Osoyoos to Armstrong, and the mostly female group started meeting for rehearsals in Kelowna joined together by their love of the bells.
Typical handbells range in size from a couple of inches to almost a foot in diameter, and weigh from a few ounces to a few pounds, said Atwell, who has written a history about the art of handbell ringing.
“They had their genesis centuries ago in the cathedrals of England, when they were used as a training tool for carillon ringers, and were introduced to North America by P.T. Barnum in the 19th century, who used them as a circus act, with the ringers dressed up in Swiss costumes,” she said. “It has only been within the past 50-to-60 years that English handbells have become popular additions to church and school music programs across Canada and the U.S., and even now, remain a novelty for many people.”
Besides Carscadden, Vernon’s Sandra Lorimer is another ringer who has joined the Okanagan Handbell Chorus, and says she is excited to take ringing out of its usual place in churches and out into the community.
“One thing with the bells I love is not just listening to them, but they are very visually pleasing with their shiny brass,” she said. “They were first introduced to me in Ottawa a few years before I moved here. After I retired, I wanted to pursue ringing. I was told B.C. had a guild so I made a couple of phone calls, and in 2005, I joined the Okanagan Bell Ringers in Kelowna.”
Handbell groups can now be found in almost every town and city in the valley. There are three in Kelowna, and Vernon did have one, but due to low numbers, ringers have had to go elsewhere, said Lorimer.
“There’s talk about starting one up here again,” she added.
The cost of bells can be prohibitive. A typical three-octave bell set can run up to $10,000, so it takes a lot of fundraising, said Lorimer. However, the B.C. guild has a chime loan program so bells can be loaned out to its members who often visit schools to teach children how to ring.
“The kids usually grab onto it pretty quickly compared to the adults,” laughed Lorimer, explaining that each member of a three-octave choir is usually responsible for two notes, plus their sharps and flats, so you usually have four bells each.
“The timing is the biggest factor,” she said. “It really is a team project.”
The bells also lend themselves to the spirit of the season, and are fitting for Christmas carols.
“There is a joyful, uplifting sense that the bells bring,” said Carscadden. “We hope the audience will enjoy it.”
The chorus has a number of holiday favourites in store, which they will perform with the OSO as well as ensemble and solo repertoire specifically written for handbells. The audience will also have a chance to join the orchestra and handbell chorus in a variety of sing-along carols.
Abbotsford percussionist and composer Bruce Henczel is also joining the symphony on marimba to perform his Christmas Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra, and the symphony will perform a number of seasonal selections.
The Okanagan Symphony’s Ringing in the Season takes the stage at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are at the Ticket Seller box office. Call 549-7469 or order online at www.ticketseller.ca.