The seven women stood behind a long table. Their shiny brass handbells were arranged in front of them, smallest to largest in size, highest to deepest in notes. Cathy Miles stepped to the music stand, raised her arms and the concert began.
They performed in the auditorium, not the sanctuary. They wore regular street clothes, not clerical robes. Instead of hymns, they rang "Over the Rainbow" and "Amazing Grace." But on a brisk Saturday last month, at Loch Raven United Methodist Church's annual arts festival, its Memorial Handbell Choir showed that the music is enchanting whatever the setting, a distinctive sound like none other.
"People tell us it is beautiful music. They enjoy hearing it. It adds to the worship service," said Miles, a Baltimore City educator who serves as director of the church's handbell choir. The 11-member, all-volunteer group plays at services monthly, September to June.
Handbells, aka English bells, came to this country around 1900. They replicate the sound of English church steeple bells, small portable versions that allowed bell-ringers to practice without disturbing the entire country-side.
It is not unusual for colleges to have handbell choirs or for the percussive instrument to be taught in schools, as a way to learn to read music. The most common use, though, is church choirs, a long-standing tradition for worship and holiday services.
"At least 250,000 people are ringing, and there are 15,000 handbell choirs, still mostly in churches," Mike Keller said. Keller is director of music and worship design at Timonium United Methodist Church and a past national president of the Handbell Musicians of America, formerly known as the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers.
Since the 1990s, handbells have become increasingly popular, according to Keller. Churches throughout the country have choirs. More schools are teaching them. Community choirs, secular groups that perform for the public, sometimes at a professional level with orchestras and in concert halls, are on the rise.
In Carroll County, Westminster Ringers choir spreads handbell music via performances, lessons and workshops. It performs two public concerts a year at Carroll Community College, and by invitation at churches, schools and retirement homes.
Charm City Bronze Handbell Ensemble does the same in metro Baltimore. Ben Lochte formed the community choir in 2013. The group of 10 to 12 ringers from age 9 to senior citizen rehearses weekly in Roland Park and performs in places such as Patterson Park.
"We are taking our music to interesting local places with good acoustics. We perform our music for all," said Lochte, a Towson University graduate with a degree in music composition. A Baltimore City resident, he directs handbell choirs in two city churches.
Loch Raven's Memorial Handbell Choir was formed in 1974 by a music director who believed it would enhance the music, said Miles. One of the reasons she joined the church was because of its music, she said.
"I love it. It's uplifting," said Miles, who knew how to play the saxophone before taking on handbells. "It's not difficult to learn to play, but there are a lot of different techniques," she said.
In handbells, each bell is one note. In a typical handbell choir of 11 musicians, each ringer is assigned two bells. The ringer is responsible for following the music and playing those bells when they appear.
"It's your job to ring those bells exactly on time. To ring and then stop the ringing. You have to fit in with the other ringers," said Keller, of Timonium United Methodist Church. "That's the fun and the challenge of it."
Ringing techniques vary, from the way the wrist is flicked to swinging the arm in an arc, from striking the instrument with a mallet to creating a vibrato sound with a finger. "The sound you want to make depends on the music," Keller said.
Professional composers are writing music for handbells, either alone or with another instruments such as the organ. There are handbell arrangements for Christmas carols and popular songs, including the score of the Disney movie, "Frozen."
Keller's Timonium United Methodist Church has two handbell choirs. The first, named Bells' Bells after the instruments' donor, was formed 20 years ago. Its eight adult ringers, all church members, play at worship services monthly and at Christmas and Easter services.
Keller formed the second handbell choir, Rockin' Ringers, last year, at the request of a parent. "She knew handbells and wanted her two children to learn. They brought friends, plus some church members wanted to learn," Keller said of the nine-ringer group of children and adults, church members and non-members, who play every other month at services.
At Towson United Methodist Church, Doug Hollida, minister of music, said its three handbell choirs, with a total of 22 ringers, were formed several decades ago. They perform at Sunday and Christmas Eve services.
"They give a broad, rich sound. Worshippers say it adds to the service," said Hollida. "One of [our music's] goals is to take us to another place, and handbells will do that."
Central Presbyterian Church's handbell choir was formed in 2003 and has eight players, including Susan Hula, its director. She played in a Silver Spring church's handbell choir before moving to Towson with her family a decade ago.
Because of its size, some ringers handle more than two bells. "While each bell is unique, it's a team effort," said Hula, echoing Keller. "You have to work together to make the sound."
Central Presbyterian's plays for worship services, but it also gives free Christmas concerts for the public, a longtime tradition.
"People in the community know about it. They come an hour beforehand to get seats. It's packed. We often need to bring in extra chairs," Hula said.
Vernon Strawhand has been a Central Presbyterian handbell choir member for eight years. Before then, he played in another church's choir for 15 years. "I am responsible for two or three notes. The other players depend on me. If you get a great piece of music, everything clicks," he said. "It's very exciting."
Bekah Wolf was so intrigued by the handbells' sound that she joined Central Presbyterian's choir eight years ago in order to learn them. "They're easy to play but difficult to play well. It took me a couple of years to get comfortable with them," she said.
At the Christmas public concerts, Wolf said, "The audience applauds. They come up afterwards and tell us how much they enjoyed the bells. It's a joyful, heart-moving sound."
Strawhand agreed. "The reaction from the audience is always positive," he said. "Especially at Christmas, they love to hear the bells."
Central Presbyterian Church's handbell choir will perform free Christmas concerts on Friday, Dec. 11 at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Dec. 13 at 3 p.m., at the church, 7308 York Road.
Charm City Bronze Handbell Ensemble will perform a Christmas concert on Tuesday, Dec. 22 at 7:30 p.m., in The Great Hall Theatre, St. Marys Outreach Center, 3900 Roland Ave. It is open to the public with a free-will offering.
Here is the thorny math problem facing New York State education officials: If the percentage of students passing the Algebra I exam falls to 63 percent from 72 percent, and the passing grade is scheduled to increase by 14 points in coming years, should the test be made easier?
In 2013, concerned that high school graduates were not prepared for college, the State Board of Regents revamped the exams students must pass to graduate, starting with the English and Algebra I tests. The board decided that, where previously students needed a score of only 65 on a 100-point scale to pass, in coming years they would have to score at a “college- and career-ready” level, which this year was deemed to be a 79 in English, and a 74 in Algebra.
The result: On the 2015 Algebra I exam, which was supposed to align with the new Common Core curriculum, the percentage of students passing fell to 63 percent, down nine points from the old exam last year. And less than a quarter of students scored at the college-ready level. In New York City, which has a concentration of poor and minority students, only 52 percent of students passed the 2015 exam, down from 65 percent the previous year on the old exam. Just 16 percent reached the “college-ready” level.
Confronted with the consequences of higher standards, the Regents, like education officials across the country, are now rethinking them.
This fall, they established a committee to study the results on the new exams to determine, among other things, whether the bar for passing, which students would have to meet starting in 2022, had been set too high. (They had originally said the class of 2017 would need the higher scores to pass, but last year decided to push that back.)
MaryEllen Elia, the state education commissioner, said no decision had been made. “Does it look reasonable right now?” she said of the “college-ready” standard. “I would say, no, it doesn’t. And I would say, what we have to do is we have to keep our eye on that.”
Passing the old algebra Regents was already a struggle for many students. An analysis by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School found that, among students who entered city high schools in 2010, three in 10 failed the exam on their first try. Students who failed the first time had to retake it an average of twice more to graduate. To help those students, schools had to devote more resources to teaching remedial algebra, rather than other, higher level math courses.
Before the new exam was given, the Regents had said they intended to set the grading so the same number of students passed as had before, but that did not happen.
Mark Dunetz, the vice president for school support at New Visions for Public Schools, an organization that supports a large network of high schools, said that while the algebra exam alone did not keep many students from graduating, many students ended up taking the exam five, six or seven times.
“It’s hard to quantify the impact of something like that,” he said.
To get students over the new, even higher threshold, New York City would need a “Marshall Plan” for teaching math, said Kim Nauer, the education project director at the Center for New York City Affairs. She noted that only 41 percent of this year’s sixth graders — the first who will be required to reach the new standard — scored at grade level on math tests in the spring.
“You don’t have much time left to get them to a point where they can pass algebra and graduate,” Ms. Nauer said.
The city’s Education Department is “in a panic about this,” said Uri Treisman, a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas who has advised the department on plans to improve math instruction in middle and high school.
Among the ideas the city is considering: having fifth graders take math with a specialized instructor instead of one teacher for all subjects; teaming up with local universities to get more sixth- and seventh-grade math teachers certified in math instruction; creating summer programs for middle- and high-school students who are struggling in math; and training middle-school and algebra teachers in how to address students’ “math anxiety.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, also recently pledged that by 2022, all students would have access to algebra in eighth grade, and all students would complete algebra by the end of ninth grade.
The investment required is clear at Park East High School in Manhattan, where most students come in doing math below grade level, but where 91 percent of students who took the Algebra I Regents this year passed it.
Freshmen have two periods of algebra each day. Each class has two teachers: While one leads the main class, another pulls out small groups of students who need more individual attention.
The head of the math department, Lauren Brady, could not find a curriculum that she felt fully aligned with the Common Core standards, so she and the other two teachers wrote their own.
But to devote so much time to algebra, ninth graders are no longer taking art, music and health. Now Ms. Brady and the other teachers are trying to pare the curriculum to give the students more time for other subjects.
And some people wonder if it is all worth it.
Algebra is a stumbling block not only for high school students, but also for students in community colleges, many of whom founder in algebra-based remedial courses. Public colleges hoping to increase their graduation rates have been asking whether algebra should be the default math course. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, working with Dr. Treisman, has created courses in statistics and quantitative reasoning that are meant to be both more engaging and more practical for many students than college-level algebra. Close to 50 community colleges now offer the courses.
In “The Math Myth: And Other Stem Delusions,” to be published by the New Press in March, Andrew Hacker, an emeritus professor of political science at Queens College, argues that it is wrongheaded to force all students to study algebra.
But Dr. Treisman said that allowing students to graduate from high school without taking algebra “would dramatically reduce their options.” And he said there was value in making students pass an algebra exam to graduate, as well.
“There’s a very solid research base for at that level having external accountability for course quality,” he said. In states that have not had such accountability, he said, “ethnographic studies of algebra, particularly in low income schools, showed that almost no algebra was being taught.”