Rowland leads TMU’s handbell choir through its 40th year

By Luke Fitzgerald, Staff Writer

The classroom EHC 100 seems like it was made for worship, and no wonder. This spacious room is a converted church chapel. There have probably been thousands of hymns and worship songs sung inside its walls. Now, all sorts of lectures from Bible to philosophy are heard from the podium. But another sort of class meets there as well. It also starts with worship.

Lawrence Rowland gathers his students around and passes out several thin books. He then asks for a volunteer to read a section of the devotional and pray. This week, the reading is about seeking God through reflection in nature. After the reading and prayer, everyone gets up and walks to tables filled with glistening brass bells, lying on their sides. Some are smaller than the ringers’ palms and others are as big as their heads.

But Rowland has only recently started his classes in reflection and prayer. For over 25 years, he has been teaching handbells at a public school in Agua Dulce, where he never had an opportunity to pray aloud for class.

He notes that since he is so used to starting class right away, he sometimes forgets to pray. “It’s humbling to me that they had to remind me [to pray]. I feel like they actually minister to me more than I could ever minister or mentor to them. Like they kind of recharge me every week,” Rowland says.

To Rowland, music has constantly been a source of encouragement and growth. Growing up, he used to strive to be the very best in every performance and recital, but after God saved him, music became personal and private, a way to pray to God. Finally, Rowland realized that God had given him a gift to share, so after some time, he was able to start a handbell program at the public school where he taught.

Meanwhile, handbells were starting to sound at the Master’s University’s campus. Clair Blackwell, who taught math at TMU and still teaches in the online program, had fallen in love with handbells ever since hearing a group play and getting involved at her local church.

TMU’s handbell program started at a Fourth-of-July party. At the gathering, TMU’s dean of The School of Music, Dr. Paul Plew, asked Blackwell to talk with the music department about music and faith. During the meeting, Blackwell brought her bells for the students to ring. It was then that Dr. Plew asked her to start a ringing event that next Christmas. So, after a few months, The Master’s University handbell choir was born in December of 1982.

Throughout those first years, the program had around eight or ten people ringing. They started a tradition each fall called “Bellfest” where local churches and schools would come and ring for each other and an audience. “We put on our posters how many thousands of pounds of bells were going to be played at that,” Blackwell says. So, handbells is “The only heavy metal band that Master’s has ever had,” she says.

It was during these yearly performances that Rowland started bringing his students and playing with them rather than directing them.

“It’s kind of what always made my public-school program unique, it was kind of unheard of not to have a director so that’s all they really knew,” Rowland says.

At each practice, he would count out the beats and measures as they played. “When they practice, they can hear my voice in their head, so they have a built-in, internal metronome, so they’ll hear me counting even though I’m not counting,” he says.

Because of his attention to excellence and commitment to his students, Blackwell and Dr. Plew noticed Rowland and began to form a relationship with him. At one point, Rowland told Blackwell that when she retired, he would love to take over for her.

“So, he was the first one I told that I wanted to retire, and that I wanted him to have the job and that I would make sure he got the job,” Blackwell says.

Soon afterwards Dr. Plew called Rowland and asked him if he wanted to take over the job. He didn’t even ask for an interview. Shocked and humbled, Rowland accepted the position.

“I went back, and I told my other students, ‘Thank you for giving me a job’ because they were my job interview,” Rowland says.

So, in fall of 20, Rowland took up the leadership of the choir. It wasn’t an easy transition, however. He started with few students to begin with and there were many COVID-19 restrictions in place.

Rowland not only had to deal with a lack of ringers but also during last fall’s Bellfest, several groups bowed out because of sickness. Nevertheless, he has been resourceful and tenacious through it all.

“One of the things that has been very amazing to me is his creativity,” Blackwell says.

She describes how when he had few students in the choir, they worked on the base cleft first and when they had that part down, they recorded it and then played the treble cleft with the recording during the concert.

Rowland and Blackwell have both worked hard to make the handbell choir as excellent as they can, but, more than anything, they stress the importance of working together. In fact, Blackwell says that in Japan they call their handbell groups “teams” rather than choirs or ensembles.

Rowland shares the same conviction. To him, handbells is less about one certain person excelling, but instead, he wants the whole team to work together as one. “You’re a team sport. You can put a non-musician next to a musician and still make beautiful music together. It’s kind of hard to comprehend how that works, but it does,” Rowland says.

Rowland begins each practice with a time of reflection and worship. Blackwell’s passion for handbells is also centered on devotion. Just as those who prepare each Sunday to lead their worship services, performing as a bell choir takes time and practice, and that focused time spent together is what makes the team vibrant.

“So much of the music is put together rather quickly…and our music for the Lord and our leadership for churches should be excellent. And so, we don’t have to be good to begin with, but we have to prepare for that opportunity to lead other believers in worship of the Lord. It’s a fantastic opportunity,” Blackwell says.

Luke Fitzgerald can be reached at fitzgeraldlt@masters.edu

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