Forget the image of a hand-bell choir as middle-aged church ladies donning white linen gloves, stiffly ringing a few small silver bells on Sunday morning. The Raleigh Ringers take bell ringing to a whole new level. With 16 ringers wielding more than 300 bells, the RRs are to hand bells what NASCAR is to the Soapbox Derby. Founded in 1990 by director, conductor and ringmaster David M. Harris, the Double Rs put on a show that features a fascinating mix of melodic hand bell music and good fun. At their Dec. 18 Christmas performance in Raleigh, they rang in the season with a beautiful rendition of "Silent Night" in a darkened (and packed) Meymandi Concert Hall as concertgoers held aloft battery-powered candles. Five minutes later, donning longhaired wigs and tie-dyes, the ringers were back on stage for a ringer's version of "Free Bird."
Harris, a computer geek in his day job, started ringing at age 14 at his Lock Haven, Pa., church. When he founded the Ringers in 1990, most of the group's performances were in churches. Now they travel coast-to-coast selling out concert halls.
The RR's bell collection includes bronze, brass and aluminum bells, and a ringer may use as many as 20 different bells in a single number. Some of the aluminum bells resemble large lampshades. Ringing at this level is not a job for lightweights. Many of the bronze bells weigh more than 10 pounds, with the heavyweight F sharp weighing in at 17 1/2 pounds. During fast-moving numbers, the ringers have to move their hands at three-card-Monte speed to keep time during rings and bell switches.
The musicians are as diverse as its music. Take Whole Foods pastry chef and former Missouri pig farmer Kevin Dietzschold of Cary, who's happy to be part of the grind that includes at least one practice a week and lots of road trips.
"You get anywhere from 13 to 16 people trying to be one instrument," he says.
For information about The Raleigh Ringers and to listen to their music, visit www.rr.org