The closing bell: Jane Nolan retires as leader of Shoreline Ringers, which she founded in 2006
It all changed for Jane Nolan when she first heard handbells ring.
It was in 1990, and Nolan was the music director at St. Luke Lutheran Church in Gales Ferry when Marilyn Downes, a sales rep for Schulmerich Handbells, came in and asked if they had handbells at the church.
“I said, ‘No.’ She said, ‘May I ask why?’” Nolan recalls with a laugh.
Downes eventually set up an ice cream social where anyone — from kids to adults — could try playing the handbells. Nolan, who has a degree in music education from Skidmore College but hadn’t ever seen a handbell, was amazed by the response.
“I distinctly remember when I watched the enthusiasm of the people. … I saw that, and I thought, ‘Wow, there’s something here.’ If you have a choir, if people can’t sing (they can’t participate). This, if you can count, you can play bells,” Nolan says.
Nolan remembers saying to the minister that if they did buy handbells and create a choir, she wanted it to be a good choir, not just a run-of-the-mill one.
She did a lot of studying. She attended workshops, festivals and seminars. She took a graduate course at the Hartt School of Music.
“I found it just as contagious as other people did,” Nolan says.
St. Luke’s ended up with multiple handbell choirs.
In January 2006, Nolan gathered a group of 14 ringers together to start a new concert choir: Shoreline Ringers.
“My goal in starting Shoreline Ringers was to create a community handbell choir, as opposed to a church choir, which would not play for worship but could be an advanced-level handbell choir for anyone who desired to play an advanced level of music and perform out in the community anywhere,” Nolan says.
The music they play is a mix of classic and contemporary music, primarily secular.
This Saturday’s Shoreline Ringers concert, for instance, will feature ABBA songs including “The Winner Takes It All,” along with “Flashdance” and “Dancing in the Moonlight.”
Speaking about Shoreline Ringers, Nolan says, “I cannot believe where it has gone. It just sort of evolved. You keep working and working, and the requests come out of the (blue).”
A request out of the blue was exactly how they got to Carnegie Hall. A woman from New Jersey called Nolan at home and said she was organizing a program at Christmas in Carnegie Hall and wanted Shoreline Ringers to be part of it. So they performed during the “Christmas Time in the City” concert at Carnegie Hall in 2009.
Shoreline Ringers has achieved a great deal over the years. They have performed with the U.S. Coast Guard Band. They have recorded seven CDs.
In 2021, Shoreline Ringers auditioned and were selected as one of four ensembles from around the U.S. to perform at the Handbell Musicians of America National Seminar in Phoenix, Arizona. They had the honor of being the opening concert for the event.
But this weekend’s Shoreline Ringers concert will be the last one with Nolan as the music director. She is retiring from the position.
“It’s bittersweet, but I think it’s the best for the group,” says Nolan, who is 80.
She laughs as she says, “I can’t sling those bell cases like I used to.”
But more seriously, she says, “I think it’s just time. It’s been a wonderful ride, and they’re wonderful, wonderful people. I think it’s just time for them to decide where they want to go and what they want to do. … We’ve come so far. Now, where do you want to go from here? Do you want to just continue with what we’re doing? Do you want to increase the number of concerts and increase where we go?”
There are three applicants to replace Nolan. One is from within Shoreline Ringers, one has played with the group occasionally, and the other is from New York. A committee is going to interview all three, and they’ll come in and essentially audition. Each member of Shoreline Ringers will get the chance to share with the committee their opinion of each applicant.
‘It shows in their playing’
Shoreline Ringers currently has 15 ringers, and the average experience level is 25 years. Many of them started as kids. Some have gone on to direct handbell choirs at their own churches.
“The nice thing about it, the group of people, many of them have been with us for a long time. We do not audition. It’s the networking,” Nolan says, adding as an example: “You know somebody (who plays handbells), and they’ve moved a little bit closer and so then they contact you. So we have never had auditions.”
She says of the people in Shoreline Ringers, “There’s a group culture there that I think is somewhat unique. They really get along, and I think it shows in their playing and it’s conveyed to their audience.”
After using the Union Baptist Church in Mystic as a base and then Ledyard Congregational Church, Shoreline Ringers now have their own rehearsal space, in a shopping plaza near Home Depot in Montville.
Some of the Shoreline Ringers travel quite a distance to get to the Wednesday night rehearsals. One comes from Hamden, another from Middletown and another from Bristol.
And everyone has responsibilities within the group beyond the music.
“When we started, it was a one-man show because I didn’t really know what I was doing,” Nolan says. “Because it was a community choir, you don’t have any funding from a church, so you’ve got to generate your own money through concert receipts – a lot of it is free-will. So everybody is heavily involved in the organization, and they don’t just come and play. They have jobs. They now arrange the concerts, they do the publicity, they do grant writing.”
50 ways to ring a bell
Right now, the members of Shoreline Ringers ring on five octaves of handbells and six-and-a-half or seven octaves of handchimes. (A five-octave set of bells probably costs over $50,000, Nolan says; Shoreline Ringer bought their handbells gradually with revenue from concerts and a fundraising campaign.)
Nolan says that they have chimes that are taller than she is. “Some are so low, you feel it before you hear it almost,” she says.
Nolan loves that the sounds you can create with handbells are so varied.
“You can ring a bell, but there are, I would say, at least 50 different ways to get sound out of that bell. You can use mallets. You can put your thumb on the casting so you get a very staccato sound. There’s four inches of foam on the table, so you can take that bell and slam it into the table and get a very percussive sound,” she says.
Handbells were first brought to America by P.T. Barnum, who wanted them to be part of his vaudeville shows. Nolan says that Barnum found a group of ringers in rural England and dressed them up like Swiss family ringers — so it was a novelty.
With that kind of history, she says, “We fight very hard for it to be a viable musical instrument. You can do so much with it, and there’s so much music out here now.”
Nolan grew up in Port Jervis, N.Y., playing piano and flute and singing in the choir. She came to southeastern Connecticut because her husband, Tom, was in the Navy, and they stayed after he retired.
She has taught music in the Ledyard schools, given piano lessons, and currently serves as music director at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Gales Ferry.
While she is retiring from Shoreline Ringers, Nolan is remaining active. She will still work at St. David’s. She will still teach piano. And she will still lead EmBellish, another handbell choir that practices at St. Luke’s. The members of Shoreline Ringers have more experience and are more advanced than the nine musicians in EmBellish. (EmBellish was formerly named Bells of Fire).
Lauren Larson, who is a member of Shoreline Ringers, says the musicians call Nolan Mama Jane, “because she’s the mother of our group.” She is giving, and she cares about everyone, Larson says.
“The group wouldn’t be anything without her dedication,” Larson says.
She also says, “With her focus on the culture and community of our group, Jane has done a great job of finding new ringers who work for not only our skill level, but also our community. We feel like a family, and Jane has been key in keeping that family feel as we have grown and changed over time.”
Nolan’s impact is reflected in what Larson calls the group’s “extreme stability”; Shoreline Ringers is 17 years old, and seven of the 15 are original members. Larson has been with the ensemble since it started. Her now-husband, Pete, has been ringing with Nolan since he was 10 years old. Lauren followed him to rehearsals and eventually joined in.
Nolan’s ability to program a wide variety of music is part of her genius. Larson says she has gone to other handbell concerts “and after the fifth song, they sound very similar.” That’s not the case with Shoreline Ringers, where Nolan mixes jazz, blues, pop and classical with some compositions originally written for handbells.
Larson says, “For music, Jane loves syncopated rhythm! Syncopation is when you play off the heat. This makes for some challenging timing when playing handbells, and you each play a different part of the melody. Her love of syncopation drives some ringers crazy and has led to a lot of musical growth for us all.”
Leading Shoreline Ringers “has been a fun ride,” Nolan says.
And the audiences apparently feel the same. Shoreline Ringers sees a lot of repeat concert-goers, and it’s often a full house.
“We say we have something for everybody,” Nolan says. “We hope we reach everybody in some way who comes there and they just have a good time.”
What: Shoreline Ringers
Who: Jane Nolan’s last concert as music director of Shoreline Ringers
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: St. David’s Episcopal Church, 284 Stoddards Wharf Road, Gales Ferry
Admission: Free; free-will offerings accepted
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