Hand-rung carols from the Bells of Boston. The trick is grabbing the right bell at the right time

Christmas shoppers at Boston's historic Faneuil Hall Marketplace have been hearing more than cash register bells this holiday season. With the help of its resident hand-bell-ringing company, Bells of Boston, the Marketplace is serenading visitors eight times a week with the crisp tones of hand-rung carols and traditional songs.

Now in its third year, Bells of Boston features 17 players - each responsible for two to four bronze bells - who work closely to create often intricate harmonies.

``It's like having 15 people on a piano bench,'' says the company's director Rob Peck, ``with each responsible for playing only two or three notes.''

Each bell player is actually responsible for only one or two notes at a time, usually played in rapid succession, player after player, to craft a melody and various harmonies. Players must take particular care to be precise in with complex songs like the Russian Dance from Tchaikovsky's ``Nutcracker Suite'' - the most difficult piece in the group's repertoire - for harmonies to be distinguishable.

And while the ringing technique is not particularly difficult, the pace often is.

According to Mr. Peck, players often share bells. As one player finishes playing a note, he may set the bell down on his right.

The player next to him may then pick up the same bell to use for a following note in the song. So players must be attentive both to the music and to the location of bells they use.

Players may also sometimes adopt the ``four-in-hand'' method, holding two bells in each hand and using a slight turn of the wrist to determine which bell will ring.

This challenging discipline of handbell ringing originated in England and was first brought to the United States in 1923 by Margaret Schurcliff, a Boston woman who formed the Beacon Hill Ringers with a set of bells she had brought home from England.

While the practice has flourished in the Midwest, says Mr. Peck, interest in handbell ringing had died down in Eastern states until recent years.

Faneuil Hall Marketplace executives say they thought this Boston-based tradition was a good match with their own traditional image and founded Bells of Boston in 1985, in part to entertain shoppers and partly to bring the art of bell ringing back to Boston.

Bells of Boston players are primarily area college students - many from Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music.

According to Peck, about one- third of them had experience in handbell ringing before joining the group.

Peck, himself an expert handbell ringer, church music director, and instructor, directed his own group of bell ringers in Nashua, N.H., for 15 years before helping to form Bells of Boston.

Since there are few published arrangements for handbells, Peck arranges most of the group's pieces himself.

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