When The Raleigh Ringers formed in 1990, the handbell choir had to borrow instruments and practice in the multipurpose rooms at two local retirement centers.
The 18-member group has come a long way since then. On Wednesday, the Ringers will travel to Europe to perform five concerts in England and France. Members have been planning the trip for two years, and they raised money through online donations and auctioned off a commissioned piece of music.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Cindy Massey, who has been with The Raleigh Ringers since the beginning.
The Ringers are no stranger to travel. They perform shows regularly on the East Coast and have visited 39 states, Washington, D.C., and Canada. They went to France in 1996, but this will be their first time in England.
During the 10-day trip, the choir will perform two shows at the American Church in Paris and one at Eglise Saint-Antoine in Compiegne. Then the group will head to England, where it will perform at the Harlequin Theatre in Surrey and St. Luke’s Jerwood Hall in London.
This will be Massey’s first time back in France since the Ringers performed there.
“When we were there 20 years ago, we were setting up, and people looked like they had no idea what we were going to do,” Massey said. “But once we played, people stopped and gathered around.”
David Harris, who founded The Raleigh Ringers and serves as the group’s director, began playing handbells as a child at his church in central Pennsylvania. Many handbell choirs are affiliated with churches and play religious music, but Harris wanted to find a way to play more secular tunes.
Harris’s job with IBM brought him to Raleigh, where he directed the handbell choir at Hudson Memorial Presbyterian Church on Six Forks Road.
“He invited everyone from the choir at Hudson to audition,” Massey said. “One got scared and went home; the rest of us became The Raleigh Ringers.”
From the start, the Ringers played all kinds of music – religious, pop and rock. Concert-goers might hear anything from “O Holy Night” to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
“We try to reach the widest audience possible,” Harris said. “There’s none like us out there.”
The Ringers played Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” on a local radio program in 1992, and the group started to become more popular.
Later, UNC-TV sponsored two television specials that featured The Raleigh Ringers performing Christmas music. The shows were broadcast across 45 states.
“That’s given us recognition outside of North Carolina,” Harris said.
DVD sales picked up as more people wanted to hear the group’s unique sound. The group also got contributions from businesses and individuals, and in 2007 it moved out of the retirement centers and and into its own rehearsal space on Millbrook Road.
Now, the group teaches handbell classes to local choirs when its members aren’t traveling.
They now have more instruments, which they own – 36 octaves of different types of bells.
Harris said the Ringers are always looking for new opportunities, including television appearances, collaborations with other groups and chances to perform all over the world.
“We want to open up handbells to people who have never heard them,” he said. “We like to reach people like that.”
Evan Owens: 919-829-8955; @eowens12