In the nave of Shaughnessy Heights United Church, 12 white-gloved youths, mostly teenagers, stand behind a long, padded table, their raised brass handbells resting lightly against their chests to dampen any stray sound. Conductor Shan Shan Chen counts the choir in, and the young bell ringers ring their bells in turn, precisely on time, each boy or girl becoming part of what amounts to a living keyboard.
“Each bell represents one key on the piano,” explains Chen.
The Bells of Shaughnessy handbell choir is rehearsing “Butterfly Lovers,” a concerto normally performed by a string orchestra. While the handbells themselves are traditional English instruments, the concerto being played is Chinese.
“I think the whole Chinese population knows this piece,” said Chen. “[Butterfly Lovers] is famous in China. We will be the first group to perform this piece with the handbell.”
This fusion of east and west is one of the hallmarks of modern Shaughnessy. Since the mid-1980s, Vancouver’s best known “tony” neighbourhood has been attracting buyers from Hong Kong, Taiwan, mainland China and other parts of Asia — buyers wealthy enough to afford the multi-million-dollar homes being sold by empty nesters looking to downsize.
The young choir members all have family trees with roots in Asia. One of them is Andy Yao, a 17-year-old Prince of Wales student who travelled to Taiwan with the Bells of Shaughnessy when the choir did a concert tour that raised approximately $10,000 for the Red Cross and a Taiwanese orphanage.
Yao came to Canada from mainland China when he was in Grade 3. He says his family returns to China to visit relatives every couple of years.
“[Performing in Taiwan in 2011] was a really unique, and, I think, really fulfilling experience,” he said. “My parents are from mainland China; it was like giving back to my homeland.”
In March, the choir will travel to Shanghai and Hangzou on its third fundraising tour for charity. Choir members have been hard at work raising money for the March 13 to 28 trip by doing car washes and raking leaves for seniors.
The 49 handbells the choir uses range in size from one that’s big enough to require two hands to hold, down to a high-note bell the size of a cellphone. Chen’s daughter, Eileen Tian — just seven years old and needing to stand on a chair to be level with the table — is in charge of ringing one of the highest notes.
During the practice, Chen urges the kids to maintain their focus. “You must concentrate,” she reminds them. “Focus.”
Chen says being part of a handbell choir teaches teens about teamwork and discipline. “Nobody is a hero in this group,” she explains. “Every part is important.” Each member of the 14-person choir must be able to sub in for another part, should someone be unable to perform.
“For teens to kind of lower yourself and blend yourself into a team, that’s important to learn,” she adds.
Chen, a piano teacher, came to Canada from Taiwan and studied music in Chicago (where she also conducted a handbell choir) before settling in Vancouver. Her first love is Russian music: “It’s very thick and colourful.”
During the practice, Mary Su, 17, a student at York House, demonstrates how handbells are played. A bell can produce different sounds, she says, if you move it in an arc, or twirl it in the air. Another technique involves laying the bell on the padded table the performers stand behind, then plucking the clapper to produce a sharp, staccato sound.
Each choir member is responsible for three to four of the bells when performing. Sometimes two bells are held at once in each hand, with each bell being rung separately.
Between practice sessions, the handbells are packed away, so choir members wanting to practise at home must improvise. Chen says they sometimes use Coke bottles as stand-ins for the bells.
A member of Shaughnessy Heights United Church for the past decade, Chen says her faith inspired her to charitable causes. “I think I’m a blessed person,” she said. “God gave me more than enough.”