Matt Compton has not been ringing for long, but he’s already an extremely accomplished ringer. He wants you to try ringing, too.
Ringing is what you do with handbells. Compton moved to Clark County around the beginning of this year to accept two different ringing-related jobs. He’s the director of Bells of the Cascades, a professional group based in Portland; he’s also joined the staff at Salmon Creek United Methodist Church, which only intended to hire a vocal music director, according to the Rev. Joyce Emery.
But the church has its own handbell choir too, and it turned out to be a major perk that Compton was a pro ringer and eager to take charge, Emery said. Under Compton, that handbell choir is reaching new heights, she said.
Compton, who is 22 years old and a December graduate of Concordia University Wisconsin, has accomplished quite a lot quite quickly. It’s only been about a decade since he first rang a handbell, he said.
Compton had zero interest and zero training in music during his childhood in Colorado Springs, Colo. — even though his grandmother was the director of the handbell choir at Peterson Air Force Base Chapel there.
But when his father was deployed to Kuwait, his mother decided he needed a new distraction. He was in seventh grade and agreed to give ringing a try — even though, his mom told him, you can’t just dabble for a week. It’s a minimum one-year commitment. Compton, who had little other than video games happening in his life, thought, why not?
He fell immediately and deeply in love, he said. “It was my first musical instrument, and I became obsessed with it, for whatever reason,” he said. Learning handbells also meant learning music literacy and theory, of course, so Compton also took piano lessons to build his basic musical foundation. And he studied composition with Kevin McChesney, a world-renowned ringer, composer and leader of the Pike’s Peak Ringers, based in Colorado Springs.
Now, Compton publishes about 20 pieces per year, he said — most of which are inspired not by big ideas and themes but by simply messing around on the piano until he hears something interesting.
“Most days, I spend some time working on something,” he said.
Most of his pieces are in the 3-to-5-minute range and intended for church use, he said, but he’s also written in lively pop-music style and even arranged for handbells some recent rock hits, such as Maroon 5’s “Payphone” and Bastille’s “Pompeii.”
What’s special about composing for handbells, versus any other instrument? You wouldn’t think so, but the bells boast a wide variety of voices and tonal colors, he said. It’s all in your technique: In addition to the standard upward-facing swing that has the clapper strike the inside of the bell, which keeps resonating until you dampen it with a hand or shoulder, there are many other fancy moves that produce fancy effects.
Shake a bell rapidly to produce a bubbly, liquid tone; gently touch a resonating bell to a padded table to create a soft echo; strike it with a mallet to produce a sharp, staccato note (if it’s sitting on padding), a long, strong ring (if it’s hanging in air) or even a dramatic ongoing attack like a drum roll (if you strike multiple bells with multiple mallets).
What’s different about a handbell choir, though, is the fact that each musician may be responsible for one or two, or at most three or four, individual notes in the scale. Melodies and backgrounds that run up and down the scale must flow back and forth along a line of musicians acting as one. That can get pretty awkward; it can also achieve impressive smoothness and grace.
Such musical integration can also make for deep social connection too, Compton said. “Everyone is so reliant on everyone else, it’s a different kind of environment,” he said. “You form very close social relationships.”
“It’s a wonderful microcosm of life,” added Emery, who said that Compton has helped the 11-player Salmon Creek handbell choir improve dramatically in just a few months.
But a handbell-playing trend seems to have peaked in the 1990s and early 2000s and fallen off again, Compton said. It’s tough to recruit new players and new learners these days, he said, and many churches have found handbells an expensive frill worth cutting. (Compton estimated that Salmon Creek’s bell set is probably worth about $16,000; others can cost far more.)