Tag Archives: Bells

When Morning Has Broken At Night

Pattern in bell

The lattice pattern that is part of the wall of the Chapel of Mercy is reflected in my A bell.

Treble bells

Treble bells on the table in front of me. I don’t play these little guys, I play G and A in bass. Of course, Bob’s bells can beat up my bells, but my bells aren’t little.

The Homecoming concert at Mount Mercy University was last night, and I wish more of my portal class students, who need cultural events, had attended.

I though it went very well.

I’ll admit I get a little tired of “Wichita Lineman,” but it’s a fine song, sung well by the men of the choir. And women did a very stirring rendition of “Morning Has Broken.”

I have a slightly complicated relationship with that song because it was a Cat Stevens hit back in the 1970s, and I’m an ashamed owner of a Cat Stevens album with that song on it.

Some of your musical tastes, formed when you’re young, are life-long. The Beatles are forever cool. Some change. I really didn’t like Elvis when I was young, but appreciate his voice and performance more now. I’m not exactly an Elvis fan, but I certainly find Elvis tolerable.

Another example of change. Maybe for 10 minutes back in 1970, Cat Stevens was cool to me, but not so now. And I’m not put off by his conversion to Islam. It’s just that I don’t care for that particular style of singing or that voice anymore. Something about it irritates me.

It’s not you, Yusuf Islam. It’s me. I’m sure you’re a musical giant compared to me. But taste in music is like taste in food—it’s OK for us to like what we like and not like what we don’t like without apology, as long as we don’t demonize those of other tastes. I liked white bread cubes and English muffin-catsup-Velveeta pizzas back in 1970, too. I won’t touch any of those now.

Anyway, despite the fact that Cat’s recording of “Morning Has Broken” is not a favorite of mine, I really like the song. It perks me up whenever that hymn comes around at church, and the ladies of the MMU choir belted the heck out of it, and it was sublime. A look at another choir, performing what seems to be pretty much the same arrangement to my uneducated ears.

The concert also featured Tony Nickle on piano, always an auditory treat. And the band played songs that, for some reason, always have me picturing John Wayne on a horse against a beautiful western background—the sweeping sounds of the MMU band put me in mind of orchestral scores of old movies, somehow. Since I still like old western movies, that’s a pleasant association.

And then there were the bells. We only played two numbers—one was the finale, one verse of the MMU Alma Mater. What can I say about the Alma Mater? Anyway, between the choir and band and the bells, I think we did OK, but who knows? Probably nobody heard us.

Our solo number was “Bwana Awabariki” an African hymn. According to Google, the title roughly means “Praise the Lord,” although the translation does not have the direct article in it.

It’s a song that involves almost every hand bell trick there is—chimes, bells and mallets. On the other hand, there’s not much banging on the table, and that’s a blessing. The song has a slightly unusual rhythm. It’s in 4-4 time, which is my favorite time signature, but a few measures toss in some eighth notes in a confusing pattern. Our director told us to just think “ba-ba-ba-baa-baa” for those measures, and it worked. It was a little odd to be there mumbling to myself “1-2-3-4” and then “ba-ba-ba-baa-baa,” but it kept me on track. My job, to some extent, was just to keep counting during long sequences in the middle of the song when no bass G or A appears in the score so that my big ol’ G or A could ring on time. I think I mostly succeeded, as did the rest of our ringers.

All in all, it’s not a particularly difficult song, but pleasant, and I would like to hear it. The odd thing about being in the hand bell choir is that my own bells ring so loud, and I’m right in the midst of other ringers, that I really only have the vaguest idea of what our songs actually sound like.

It seemed OK Sunday night. Here is a video of another bell choir playing that same song, accompanied by one drum, as we were.

It was a fun concert. As I say, I only wish more people had been there to experience it. Still, it went well, which is a nice start to this year’s hand bell season.

So, MMU students, I bet there’s room for more ringers in our group. Haven’t you always wanted to be called a “ringer?” If you ever wanted to play some music in a group, this is probably about the easiest ensemble to join at MMU—no experience required.

Take my word for it. I did it. If I can do it, trust me, you can, too.

A Bell

Another reflection look at the A bell. I tried to shoot a few photos during the concert, but I have not figured out how to make my new camera work in low lighting.


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And Thanksgiving Suddenly Arrives on Halloween

Halloween masks

Some of the Halloween masks made in a reality TV exercise by students in one of my MMU classes. The one with the balloon was judged the winner.

I could be writing about the weather—we’ve had a consecutive string of nights well below freezing, so-called “hard” freezes that would be the end of mosquito season except they aren’t the first we’ve had.

But, truly, that’s pretty normal for this time of year. So the weather feeling like Nov. 1 right before All Saints Day just is not a huge shock to the system.

No, I mean I’m inordinately pleased, almost euphoric this morning because burdens have been suddenly and unexpectedly shifted into my future. It’s paradise in procrastination land—thanksgiving for the delayers.

I was feeling bad Tuesday because I had a meeting set late in the afternoon with my boss about a major at MMU, and little known to her, I’m supposed to have written a proposal to revamp said major that was to be the topic of our meeting. Yesterday, before the meeting, I was scrambling around trying to find my notes from consultations with other faculty members, and I can’t locate them. So I was expecting a somewhat awkward and vague meeting, full of empty promises to “get right on that,” when in fact I had already been on that and already dropped the ball.

But, it turns out the meeting is next Tuesday. Well, poke me with a fork and call me meatloaf. Hip, hip, hooray! I still have to find those notes and write that darn proposal, just not right this second.

I was in a good mood when I went to bell choir rehearsal, and something odd is happening there that continued to happen yesterday. I cant’ say why. I struggle a lot in the bell choir, and I feel bad sometimes that I’m holding everyone back. I’m definitely the most non-musical person in the room. We were going to play a new song, and the director said something like “we may eliminate the 16th notes,” and I was probably the only person in the choir wondering: What the heck does a 16th note even look like? And what sadist would call for a note that lasts for a quarter beat, a time interval so short you can’t even chew a bite of pizza once (that’s my musical time interval—an eight note is one quick chew). I’ve heard legends of these things called 16th notes, but no, I don’t want to try to play one and I want to protect my virgin eyes from ever seeing that abomination.


Boo! Spooky, right? I am going to play all of these bells, yes I will. Wish me luck. These are the bells I will ring for my Christmas solo.

Anyway, what’s odd? I feel like I’m doing slightly better than usual this fall. I’m actually reading the music and following along. I still get lost, still slow people down, but not as often as usual. I’m even going to play a solo song at an upcoming Christmas concert (blog fans, it’s Dec. 16 at 2 p.m. in the Memorial Chapel at Cedar Memorial—the big cemetery in town—yes, it’s true, they hold a big Christmas concert in a cemetery chapel, trust me, it’s fun). That means I’ll be ringing something on the order of 8 notes, not 2, my usual trick. And, we’ll see—but with practice, I’m sure I can do it. Slowly, ever so slowly, music is becoming less mysterious to me.

Well, they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I say they lie. And, according to an episode of “Myth Busters,” by the way, that adage about canines is totally libelous to old dogs. According to their tests, old dogs take pretty much exactly the same amount of time to learn new tricks as young dogs do. So there.

I voted

Yes I did on Tuesday, one week before Election Day. Done.

Anyway, despite being stressed and tired, my normal state during musical practices, I would say bells went well, as they have in recent weeks. Knock on wood, I don’t want to jinx myself, but there you have it—after about 3 years, I finally am staring to feel like I can actually play two notes. So after practice, I pedaled home in the dark, and when I met my lovely spouse, her first words were: “Want to go and vote?”

My first reaction was “no,” because I’m old-fashioned and vote on Election Day. But that’s only a week away and there is no chance in Hades that I’m changing my mind now. Audrey had gotten a call about a satellite voting station in our neighborhood, and what the heck?

So, I cast my ballot. If Romney wins, and the zombie apocalypse results, you don’t have me to blame. We then went to a restaurant for supper, and I had a steak. I don’t often eat steak, but I fairly often crave steak, and there was a delicious bloody dead cow on my plate.

I was not looking forward to today. It’s Halloween. Don’t get your knickers in a twist, I love candy, don’t mind giving it away, and am not one of those people who are confused about the meaning of Halloween and think it’s tied into devil worship and paganism an all that. For crying out loud, most Christian holidays, including Christmas, have pagan origins and we should just get over it and eat our Twix bars. Anyway, what I don’t like about Halloween is that Iowa College Media Association student newspaper contest entries are due that day, and that usually means I am on campus all weekend before getting them ready.

Except I was not this year, which meant that Halloween itself, today, was going to be devoted to searching through old newspapers with the kind of peculiar self-loathing that comes upon a newspaper advisor as he searches for something good in the past year’s worth of papers: Where is it? (Times kids, don’t take this as an indictment of you or your efforts, I think any communicator with experience will understand the melancholy of going through past efforts and wishing everything had turned out better, newer, faster, shinier—but mostly, just better. Trust me, it’s not you, it’s me.)

So I go into my e-mail, and I search for ICMA, and there is the message from the Iowa Newspaper Association with the rules. Sigh. Then I look at the rules.

Hold the phone, bar the door, break out the Champaign and drink a toast to yet one more last-minute reprieve. There I am, strapped in the chair, the guard is about to administer the juice, when suddenly in the ta-da nick of time, the governor calls.

The rules have been changed. The deadline this year is no long the day of ghouls—it’s Nov. 15.

Angels, descend, singing, playing handbells (Good King Wenceslaus, in case you wondered).

Even without a Reese’s (always and still my favorite on Halloween, but I’ll take that sweet candy corn, too) the day is looking up. I’ve already voted, I’ve eaten a steak, I have a few more days to write my major revamp and I have two weekends to put off my ICMA entries.



And to top it off, just as I was polishing off this blog post, I hear Dr. Dennis, the psycho professor next door, saying “maybe Joe would like the last one.” No need to wonder, of course he would. Thank you, Dennis, and thank you anonymous psychology student who made a good Halloween even better.


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MMU Graduation Day 1: Ringing in the ‘Hood

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The three-day whirlwind of graduation events is underway at MMU. It’s always a bittersweet time—you work with students in hopes of launching them into the world and seeing the great things they do, but then the time comes and you really don’t want to say goodbye.

But, here we are.

The first event today was the hooding ceremony for graduating graduate students. There were more than 50 in four programs so the ceremony has outgrown its traditional venue, the chapel, and was held in the gym.

Which is not air conditioned, but sure could have used it today.

It made me glad that I’m not in the graduate faculty and only had to look nice—no robes. I was with the MMU bell choir, and this was our final event of the school year.

The hooding and reception afterwards were done well, as far as I could tell. It look only about an hour to have five speeches and more than 50 hoods. We rang with the choir, and did a kind of cool marching entrance by memorizing just one measure that we played again and again.

We don’t know for sure who among our ringers will be back. Several are launching into the world as part of the class of 2012 and don’t yet know where they are landing.

Well, good luck graduating graduates and maturing bell ringers. And we’ll see many of you yet at other events Saturday and Sunday.

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Ringing Them Bells on a Sunday Afternoon


MMU bells at Hallmar today. The dining hall has a nice atrium skylight, reflected in the bells.

I spent part of this fine afternoon, a little under an hour, playing bells at Hallmar Care Center at Mercy Medical Center.

On one level, I was dreading this concert. Last year, it was really hard for me, for some reason. I just didn’t seem to count well, got lost in several songs and ended up feeling awful.

To make this year’s concert a bit more of a challenge, I had offered to tape the concert using a digital video recorder. Wonderful. I was not only facing the concert that I messed up on the most last year, but I was offering to record the experience.


Keys on Hallmar piano that Carolyn played.

Well, the anticlimax was spectacular. I know I messed up a few times and struggled to keep time, but overall the concert was, well, just fine, thank you. I left feeling pretty good and took an extra long bike ride home to celebrate.

And, when I got home and downloaded the video, while the framing was a bit iffy, the sound quality, I thought, was surprisingly good.

I don’t know where the video will appear, but I extracted one song’s worth. I’ll leave it to Carolyn Sternowski, our director, to decide what to do with the rest, but here is Amazing Grace, performed today by the MMU Hanbell Choir—and note how relieved that old guy in the back row seems:


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This Little Bell of Mine, Sometimes It Makes Me Whine

Bell being rung

MMU handbell choir member rings a bell during practice. It's a treble bell. Nobody knows the trebles I've seen.

Here are a few bell photos from the MMU as yet generically named “handbell choir.”

I am still experimenting with a new camera. A student took it to play practice last night and the results looked pretty good, so a buy is likely.

Anyway, the bell choir practices this week were a mixed bag for me. I’ve not marked all of the music in some newer songs we’ve started, and sometimes I get lost. Still, I’m much better at actually reading music than I used to be.

In “This Little Light of Mine” there is shifting back and forth between ringing and using mallets to strike the bell, and I’m far from smooth with the transitions.


During one song, Matt rings all these chimes. Me, I'm a two-note guy. Got a left hand and a right hand. Just two notes.

Well, at least I get to “sing” my A bell for 40 or so measures in “Amazing Grace,” which means I’m just holding my bell and running a wooden dowel around it. No beat to keep, I can dig that. It sure beats heck out of eighth notes.

My daughter Katy, when I start noting that I think Satan inspired eighth notes, always says something pithy like “good thing you don’t play any 16th notes or your head would explode.”

True, but on the other hand, she was a flute player, so we know she was wild and crazy. Those fluters. They play some fast notes, like a choir director suddenly playing a song on the piano and the pace is twice as fast as it was.

Anyway, we help provide some of the music at the 8:30 p.m. Mass this Sunday at MMU. If you’re looking for a Mass with an interesting ding-dong twist, including a singing A, come on up to the MMU chapel.

You can say a little prayer for me and my eighth notes. I may need it.


Choir director gets ready to ring.

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Suffering From Debate Fatigue

The 111th and 112th GOP presidential debates of the 2012 election cycle were held Saturday and Sunday.

And they raise the question: Are the number of debates inversely proportional to the strength of a field of candidates? Romney is sure that American is inches away from losing free enterprise, Rick Perry outright labeled President Obama a socialists, and I’m left wondering about the weird, alternate universe that these candidates inhabit.

Check Politifact.com or Factcheck.org. Both Perry and Romney were pants-on-fire liars, and not for the first time.

Meanwhile, New Gingrich has become the defender of Christian-Catholic morality.

I may be ill.

What are my impressions of the debate? Here are a few snapshots:

  • Jon Huntsman doesn’t stand a chance. He’s not looney enough for the modern GOP. Any man who speaks Mandarin during a debate has lost the right wing right there.
  • Newt is mad. Mad as hell. Mad as a wet hen. Mad as a hatter. And his campaign isn’t going anywhere.
  • Rick Santorum is still on the rise. His scheduled implosion date has already passed, and he’s still around. He may be “the one” that the “anybody but Romney” crowd crowds around. And if the GOP nominates him, Obama is virtually assured of a second term.
  • Rick Perry, please stop. Your campaign ended in Iowa. You keep repeating the same cheap lines whenever anybody makes the mistake of asking you a question, and you’re becoming a painful spectacle. If you play well in South Carolina, that state should secede.
  • Ron Paul is starting to really grate on my nerves. Everybody else is a corrupt hypocrite, and only he knows the meaning of freedom. He’s rapidly going from cute older gentlemen to village crackpot who yells at everyone who passes by: “Read the F***** constitution, and stay off my lawn!”
  • Mitt? I want him to dye his hair blond and spike it. Just for fun. He’s probably already the GOP nominee, but it’s not because Everybody Loves Romney. It’s easy to stand tall in a field of midgets.

Well, maybe I’m just too grumpy because I’m teaching a class on Media and Voters. The students don’t seem as cynical as I am, and that is refreshing.

Hours after seeing the Meet the Depressing Candidates Debate, I was playing bells with the MMU Handbell Hellraisers (still want a catchy name) at an Epiphany concert. The concert was a nice break, a change of pace.


Bells on the peformance table at St. Pius X church where concert took place. Shiney.

It featured many of the Christmas songs I like and none that I hate. No Drummer Boy, for example, and I know it’s sappy, but I almost always like any performance of “Breath of Heaven.” We played Ding Dong Merrily On High and The Holly and the Ivy. I was hopelessly lost several times during warm-ups, but mostly stayed with the group during performance, even when I had to play an A chime on beat four and mallet and A bell on beat one of the next measure.

It got me away from Google News for a time, and for that I’m grateful. Now, if Ron could start being happy again, Newt learn to crack a few jokes, Mitt spike his hair, Jon mumble some more Mandarin and the Ricks just fade away, it can get to be a more interesting campaign season.


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Ringing Bells in Thanksgiving

G flat.

G flat, A sharp, a bell I would play if there any of those notes, which there were not tonight. By the way, I am reflected in the bell as I snap this picture, but so distorted you may not be able to see me.

Bell ringing went fairly well Monday night, I thought. We started more or less together, ended at the same time and mostly played together in between.

The Mount Mercy Handbell Ensemble, which has yet to find a catchy name (The MMU Clapper Troupe? The Ring Tones? Eighth Notes Are Imaginary? Hill’s Bells? The Chapel Clangers? The Ding Dongs? MMU Can Ring Our Bells? It’s A Ding Thing? Mustang Music Mayhem? Ask Not For Whom? Droll Tolls? QuasiMustangs? Swell Bellers? MMU Ring for You? U Rang?) played at the Linn County Interfaith Council Thanksgiving service.

I had not been to the new Unitarian  Universalist church in town, and despite severely underestimating how long it would take to get so deeply into the winding streets of Northwest Cedar Rapids, it was worth the trip.

Working ends

The "business" ends of a bell and a hand chime. Not sure what notes these are--they belong to Katie, the student who rings beside me in the bass table.

I had a swell bell time. I rang some, ate some cookies and heard some interesting new prayers from many faith traditions. A young Muslim woman was probably embarrassed because she dropped the candle that was being used to light a symbolic ring of candles representing each faith tradition that was participating, but it gave a Rabbi a nice chance, which he took, to do a nice “save.” He noted that the dropping of the candle was symbolic because it then had to be relighted from another burning candle—the way that those of us of different faiths in Cedar Rapids must sometimes depend on each other.

I also thought the Rabbi had one of the better quotes of the evening, although from whom it came I don’t know. But to paraphrase the quote, it was something like: “God, to worship you properly I need to remember two things. That you exist. And that I am not you.”

Well, all’s well that rings well, and tonight the ringing was fine. The host choir sang well, the prayers were interesting and the cookies afterward in the church basement provided a nice cap to the evening.

Only one thing left undone. The name for the MMU Handbell Ensemble. The Fire Hazards? The Gloved Grippers? Carolyn and the Bongers? The MMU Hill Scalers? Hmmmmmm.

Grand piano.

No more buttered scones for me, I've got to play the grand piano. Detail of beautiful old grand that was in the Unitarian church.

Banner in Bell

I like how the colorful banner that was at the front of the Universalist church is reflected in the A bell I play.


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