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of one of America's finest handbell choirs

MACH Memories


On May 14, 1997, Julie Gray, Susan Horein, and Tricia Kalus met at Susan Udell's home to consider the formation of an auditioned handbell choir. Twenty-three churches with handbell choirs had been contacted to determine interest in such a choir and were assured that accepted ringers must stay in their church choir; this choir would be an extra commitment.

Joined by Alice Teter, the women met throughout the summer to draw up by-laws, incorporate, and achieve non-profit status with pro bono legal help from the Boucher Law Firm. The first audition attracted three dozen ringers from whom 16 were selected. Kristi Menninga hosted a brunch to begin fostering camaraderie among the ringers.

Rehearsals began in September and we performed our first Bells of Christmas concert in December for a standing room only audience of over 450 at Asbury Methodist Church. (This was a free concert which might have helped immensely!) Attire included white tuxedo shirts with red silk scarves purchased from the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.

We were borrowing bells from Asbury but, with help from our Board of Directors and various matching grants, soon bought our first octave of bells--the lowest, 6th octave, that was new in Madison at that time. Many requests for performances in the community later led to our purchasing our own five octaves to avoid the wear and tear on borrowed bells. Requests also led to diversifying our costumes, starting with brilliant blue sequined vests!

Among other concerts in the early years, we played in a tent on the Capitol Square for Wisconsin's Sesquicentennial Celebration and at Monona Terrace for the Horsfalls' 50th anniversary and the Capitol Pageant in 1998; at the Elvehjem Museum of Art, Olbrich Gardens, on WHA radio, and at several residential care sites in 1999; and for the first of several times, with the Madison Symphony Orchestra in 2000.

Who can forget the train whistle in Chattanooga Choo-Choo and turning the wheels to get the train started? Or the descriptive Up On the Housetop piece that included a slide whistle played by Jane Sulzer that so beautifully mimicked Santa's descent down the chimney? Ads by the Thompson Plumb Investment Management firm gave MACH publicity on the financial page of the State Journal and Dr. Tom Heighway of Middleton was an ardent supporter who volunteered to record our performances.

In April 2001, we presented All Creation Rings as one of the first productions at the newly refurbished Stoughton Opera House; remember those little brass dust catchers in the corners of the stairs? That year MACH was first listed in the Dane County Cultural Resources Directory. Our interactive concerts with nursing home residents continued to bring stimulation and enjoyment to shut-ins.

Our 2002 Spring Concert, Dancing Bells, prompted one of our ringers, Catherine Faley, to design two happy bells that we used as mascots for several years. Showtime in the Spring of 2003 had them holding tickets; they made people smile! That concert was presented at the Zona Gale Center in Portage as well as in Madison. In the fall, our current president, Rachel Bain, was featured with others in a Women in the Performing Arts photo in anew Magazine. We were again invited to play with the Madison Symphony, but this time, we knew enough to bring reading, knitting, or homework to occupy us backstage while waiting for our group to be called during rehearsals and performances!

The opening of the Overture Center in September 2004 found us lugging our equipment into the lobby to perform; the task of carrying large cases of bells was lightened by our ringers making a "bass bell train"......We then played with the MSO at their Christmas Spectacular. At our own concerts, we even included an Elvis impersonator who sang Blue Christmas to the delight of the audience! That year we added multi-colored ties and then sparkly black vests to our wardrobe--made by our talented ringer-seamstresses headed by Sally Meredith.

Workshops and publicity extended our outreach and at various times we've had ringers who traveled from Milwaukee, Spring Green, and (presently) Oconomowoc to perform with us. A visitor from Janesville was so impressed by our group that she attended many rehearsals to learn correct techniques and how to ring musically. She now conducts and travels with her own choir in and outside of her native Finland. They raised money and visited us a few years later for extra tips on playing.

2005 was the first year of our innovative program, Enhancing Music Appreciation Through Handchimes and Handbells, in which two of us visited school music classes and taught 4th- and 5th-graders to play handchimes. We then gave a demonstration of handbells. Later, all the classes were bussed to a concert by the full choir, for which they had been prepared with written and auditory materials. In the five years that grants allowed MACH to present this program, we taught over 3000 youngsters.

2005 also was special since we now owned over six octaves of bells and seven octaves of handchimes--with the 7th octave chimes being so large that they have to be played on a rack. We had a booth at Madison's 150th Birthday Bash and were now being recorded by Audio for the Arts. Our CDs were approved by Jeffers Handbell Supply for national distribution.

To celebrate our 10th anniversary, MACH commissioned a piece by Hart Morris, a well known handbell composer, who slyly included a touch of "On Wisconsin" in his MACH Ten. Even we had trouble hearing it among the driving rhythms!

Mark Bloedow began guest conducting the Spring concerts in 2008. In December, we again played with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, Chorus, and Youth Choirs at the Christmas Spectacular in Overture Hall. It was always a thrill to be on that stage with 2000 in the audience!

Our Fall Festival workshop/concert in October 2009 attracted 60 participants with some coming from Menomonee Falls, Baraboo, and even Rockford, IL. We, too, traveled: in December, we performed for the second time for residents and neighbors of Sinsinawa Mound, and also the Red Hat Club ladies who attended from Dubuque, Iowa. Pre-concert dinners at the convent were always good times to make new friends.

Our December 2009 concerts included pieces featuring our latest acquisitions, two bell trees; and also a new technique, the singing bell, adopted from the singing bowls of Nepal and Tibet. These will be used at our concerts in December 2016 as we celebrate 20 years of concerts and service to the Madison area.

"This is my favorite concert of the season! It's just full of joy, playfulness and fun!"
--B. O., Madison singer

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