Covenant Ringers Thankful for her Melodious Journey

Italy. Scotland. Cuba. Indianapolis. Austin.

Ringing bells has taken Covenant Pro Musica Handbell Choir director Linda Rutherford all over the world. Fortunately for Covenant members, she has spent the last 25 years right here in Austin leading our handbell choirs. This month, Linda is stepping down as director. She recently reflected on her long journey.

“We have exceptional musicians at Covenant. I love it when a piece comes together and I can see the look on the ringers’ faces knowing they realize it as well,” said Linda. “My favorite memories are the Easter and Christmas programs. They are so special.”

As she leaves her position, Linda said, “I will miss hearing music played as often as I do now.”

Linda, herself, started ringing in the early 80s at an Indianapolis church and in community groups. After admitting to someone on the church staff that she was a musician, she started leading bells the very next Sunday. Several years later, she moved to Austin. Former Music Ministry leader Tom Brown hired Linda to direct the Pro Musica Handbell Choir his first year at Covenant. Leading Covenant’s bell choir provided extra income and Linda was excited to continue to work with music. “I enjoyed working the adults in Indianapolis. At Covenant, the ringers had a good skill level so they could do some advanced ringing.”

Long-time ringer John McFarlane praised Linda’s skill. “Several choir directors pretty much said they didn’t know anything about bells. That all changed when Linda came along. She arrived at Covenant explaining that she was a ‘Tentenabulator Porcus’ and encouraged us all to join in. With years of training and experience with handbells, she immediately took us to a whole new level of playing.”

‘Tentenabulator Porcus?’ John’s wife, Suzanne McFarland, translated: “Bell-ringing pig.”

Bell Choir Challenges

For the past quarter-century, Linda has had the difficult job of blending the different ringers. Director of Music Ministry Michael Shuman explained. “Handbells is a different kind of group. In a singing choir, if a tenor and a soprano are missing from your 30-person choir, you have several others to provide the part. In bells, everybody has their own two notes, maybe three. If people are missing, then you’re missing a note or more, and it’s obvious.”

“Bell ringing is the most challenging thing that I do,” said Suzanne, who has been ringing since 1991. “Each person plays two notes, including the accidentals for those two notes. Every time you play a note, it’s an entrance. Try singing a piece, but you only sing two of the notes, not the whole line,” she added as an example.

John joined handbells several years after Suzanne. “As the group grew and thrived, and the larger low bells were acquired, I was recruited to ring the big bells in the lowest octave,” he said. “Music is my lifelong hobby. I have played all kinds of instruments and have sung in many choirs over the years. But playing handbells is a unique experience, mixing left brain and right brain activity.”

Michael said, “There are handbell techniques very specific to the group: How are you ringing? What are you doing to that bell? Are you using a mallet? How are you moving the bell? Not just anybody can direct a bell choir; it takes a person who knows about bells to step up.”

Within her first year, Linda was also leading the children’s handbell choir. Since then, Linda said Covenant’s bells have grown, and directing the two age groups can be a challenge. “I use a different teaching philosophy,” she said. “With children, I do more hand-holding and coaxing. Some are more timid at first and take a bit more drawing out.”

When leading the two groups became challenging for Linda, John stepped up to help with the Resonant Ringers, Covenant’s youth handbell program. The group restarted last fall after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic. “Trying to get the group playing again was essentially like starting a new group,” John said. “When the word went out that the youth bells group was coming back to life, Linda was amazed that 10 kids showed up. A third of them had never played bells before, and about a fourth did not read music. Linda has such a sweet disposition and encouraging demeanor that it was no surprise to me that they were eager to get started with her again.”

John said Resonant Ringers recent success has been a group effort. “What a treat it has been for me to see the commitment, dedication and even eagerness these kids have shown. With a little over a month, we came up with a number to play at the children’s Christmas concert. It never could have happened without the assistance of Cheryl Banks and several choir moms. Shortly after the concert, the kids were asking, ‘When can we play next!?’”

Suzanne added, “I have been amazed at the children’s discipline of knowing what they are expected to do, including getting out their bells and putting them away afterwards.”

“Linda has been great, both with adults and kids,” Michael said. “I think it’s half knowledge and half personality.

Linda’s Teaching Style Lauded

Suzanne reflected on the ProMusica Handbell Choir. “Linda took the Covenant handbells interpretation from sounding like random ringing to music. She taught us how to bring out the melody so it was recognizable.”

“She’s a strong leader in the actual teaching of the bells,” Michael said. “At one practice, the ringers had been ringing for a while and Linda stopped them and said, ‘Okay, who has the melody?”

Michael explained the melody brings out the important parts of the music. “She didn’t just ask them to ring louder. She leads them on a process, rather than formulaic here-and-there instruction. It’s her way of bringing the group to the result, rather than telling them exactly what to do.”

John agreed, “Linda patiently taught us that the listener should be able to perceive that there is a melody and not just random ringing of a bunch of notes. We are not supposed to always play loudly! Imagine, what a concept: musicality!”

Ringer Brynn Anderson joined the choir 25 years ago after playing in a church bell choir in New York. “When I started ringing under Linda’s direction, I immediately liked her almost Suzuki-like approach. Obviously, her preference was for us to play the right notes, but she didn’t get bogged down in that. Instead, the focus was on the dynamics of the music and the overall feel of the pieces.

“Truthfully, I felt completely out of my depth with the group, and told myself I’d just help for that one time. Somehow Linda kept me hooked, and now suddenly, it’s 25 years later and I’ve loved every minute of it!” Brynn said. “Because Linda herself was a bell ringer, she could identify with some of the tricky passages, and always knew just what to suggest to help get a ringer over any given hurdle.”

“Linda planned what we would play, being sure that it was appropriate for the sermon topic, and that we had enough time to prepare it,” Suzanne said. “She was always incredibly patient with our making the same mistakes over and over and never getting upset with us.”

Small Group of Music Makers

“I guess what makes being in bell choir fun is not only playing the music, but the camaraderie of the members. We’ve gotten to know each other pretty well over the years and have become a family, beyond just a gathering of individuals, sharing together times of both celebration and mourning — another small group of sorts,” Brynn said.

“Linda is personable with the group,” Michael said. “She has strong connections with each of the members. They are like a small group. In fact, a lot of them have been ringing since she started. They wouldn’t do that if Linda wasn’t a good person and knowledgeable about bells.”

International Travel

Linda’s extensive travel with bells resulted from meeting ringers at conferences. Trips to Cuba stand out. “Linda has shared her love of ringing with the congregation at our sister church in Luyanó, Cuba,” Brynn said.

Jack Kern leads Covenant’s Cuba Ministry. “Linda traveled to Cuba six consecutive years from 2013 to 2018,” Jack said. “She felt called to accompany our sister church and felt an even stronger sense of call to bring hand chimes after her first trip, knowing that the Cuban churches didn’t have them. She also knew that the hand chimes would enhance their beautiful worship services.”

“Being with Tammy Lynn in Cuba the year before, I thought it might be a way to include more kids and draw them into the church,” Linda said. “We took a set of choir chimes to Cuba. Choir chimes are aluminum and less expensive. We introduced them to middle school-age kids. They loved them.”

It wasn’t long before the kids, the church and even the surrounding community were embracing the bells. “In time, evidence of God’s blessing became apparent,” Jack said. “Within two years, youth at our sister church were regularly playing hand chimes in worship. They also play concerts at other churches. We have seen the original Luyanó players grow up from elementary school to high school students who are now eagerly joined by younger children.”

Jack said Linda became a mentor to Yahimi Maderos, who leads the Luyanó hand chime players. Yahimi had no musical education, so Linda taught her with color-coded music. Jack is struck by their relationship and what it has fostered. “I was most amazed and impressed at Linda’s encouragement of Yahimi to use this hand chime opportunity to build up and unite young people from the neighborhood. From Linda, Yahimi learned that reflecting Christ’s love to her players was so much more important than achieving performance perfection.”

When the Going Gets Tough …

Michael said that in his first nine months on the job (pre-pandemic), he and Linda were moving toward doing collaborative projects—figuring out ways to combine the bells with the choir and the organ. Later, during the shutdown, Linda led virtual bell choirs. “Some of her bell colleagues did not want to attempt that with bells because it’s such a different kind of thing,” Michael said.

“Getting music and bells to everyone was a challenge,” Linda said. “I bought several paint buckets to put bells and music in—an idea from a director on the East Coast. The ringers rehearsed their parts; then we rehearsed together and recorded. Recording virtually was a challenge, but they did well.”

A Tribute to Linda

And now, after 25 years of leading handbells, Linda is stepping down. A few ringers are organizing a tribute to her and recognize how big her job is. John said, “I am very aware of the myriad details that Linda has always taken care of, like where and when to meet before the service for the adults and kids, coordinating all the details with Michael Shuman, getting the tables, pads and covers to the chancel, and music stands and robes for the kids, reserving rooms for both choirs for Sunday, etc., etc. She has been a blessing for a long time in many, many ways!”

Linda leaves big shoes to fill. “We will look for someone to build upon what Linda has established in the last quarter-century,” Michael said.

“Linda has been such a blessing for our church music program for decades,” John said.

Linda’s last day leading bells is this Sunday, February 13. Join us at the 9:30 a.m. worship service to hear the bells and to celebrate Linda’s melodious career as Covenant’s handbell  director.