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Handbell Festival Coming to State College High School

by and on April 11, 2015 9:00 AM

The 22nd annual Nittany Valley Handbell Festival Concert will be held at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 11, at the State College Area High School North Building gymnasium.

The festival is hosted by the Westminster Handbell Ensemble from Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church in State College.

Westminster Ensemble member Valerie Updegrove expects a large turnout of choirs from Pennsylvania and Maryland. "We'll have 23 choirs with 240 ringers," she says. The choirs will perform eight songs as a combined choir, with several choirs also performing solo numbers. There will be a $5 admission fee charged at the door for spectators.

Guest conductor for the festival is Cathy Moklebust, of Eagle Grove, Iowa. Moklebust has developed and directed handbell music programs since 1983, and has played bells since her childhood. She is one of today's most popular handbell music composers, with numerous published compositions and arrangements to her credit, many of them achieving bestseller status.

She has received many prestigious awards for her work. A native of South Dakota, she earned a bachelor's degree in music/percussion and a master's degree in teacher education/music at South Dakota State University, beginning her career as a public school music instructor. She currently plays percussion with the Karl L. King Municipal Band of Fort Dodge, Iowa.

The Westminster Handbell Ensemble is directed by Gail Ritchey, who founded the group in 1978 and helped to originate the Nittany Valley Handbell Festival 22 years ago. "We are a five-octave choir, which requires 13 people," she says. The ensemble features both bells and chimes, which resemble tuning forks and help to produce a full, well-balanced sound.

The group rehearses every Tuesday night, and plays one Sunday a month at Our Lady of Victory, as well as doing guest performances at many local churches. Their repertoire includes many hymns and some secular songs, such as Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade." The ensemble features both male and female members ranging in age from teenagers to senior citizens, and representing several different church denominations. Westminster Ensemble member Anna Carol Buffington also directs a handbell choir at her home church, Grace Lutheran in State College.

Some of the ringers play four bells each, with two in each hand, held at 90 degree angles to each other. "The bells are directional — they only ring when moved in one direction" explains choir member Ryan Ditmer. "You ring one with your hand in a vertical position, and the other with your hand held horizontal, like knocking on a door." Ditmer, who is a church organist, describes himself as a "floater," filling in on any bell when someone is absent.

"You need a full choir to play these songs," he says.

The ensemble's largest bells sound tones as low as two octaves below middle C. Those bells measure more than a foot in diameter, and can weigh nearly 14 pounds. The bells can also be played by striking them with mallets to produce a soft, staccato tone. Doug Piper has played the large bells with the Westminster Ensemble for 10 years.

"The whole choir is like a piano, and each person is a key," he says.


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This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

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