Listening to a hand-bell choir is like sitting inside a music box. It is a glorious experience. A cascade of notes ripples through your bones as choir members ring their bells--all tuned to different pitches--at precisely the right moment to produce hymns, spirituals, folk songs--even contemporary music.

It's a sound that is being heard more in Northern Virginia as an increasing number of area churches form hand-bell choirs to bring the distinctive music to their congregations.

But while other churches are just purchasing their bells, St. Matthew's United Methodist Church in Annandale has been at it for almost 30 years. Since 1972, ringers at St. Matthew's have been setting the standard locally for hand-bell playing and performing.

These days, 150 ringers form 10 bell choirs of varying abilities--three adult groups, four groups for teenagers and three groups for children. St. Matthew's music director, Nancy Cappel, said the hand-bell groups do more than just make beautiful music together.

"It builds wonderful camaraderie, wonderful friendships, wonderful self-esteem," she said.

Cappel's bell choirs also draw attention. They have played at the White House, at the lighting of the national Christmas tree, at Constitution Hall and at the Kennedy Center.

Other churches are discovering the attractions of hand bells as well. The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax began its hand-bell programs five years ago, and music director Judy Harrison now directs three choirs, including a children's group.

Harrison said she likes the hand bells because they draw in people who may have no musical experience at all. "If you can raise your arm, you can play a hand bell," she said.

Hand-bell ringing originated in England several hundred years ago when church-bell ringers decided they wanted to practice on the ground rather than in a chilly tower. They came to the United States about 150 years ago, first in circus acts.

Originally, hand bells simply mimicked the sound of tower bells, but they have grown in number and in the way they can be played. Each hand bell is a different size, and each one plays a different note.

Along with the most popular method--ringing the bell with a snapping motion of the wrist and then "damping" the sound by touching it to the shoulder--bells now can be struck with soft mallets, for example, or played several at once or by plucking the clapper to produce distinctively different sounds.

Ringing in a hand-bell choir is a bit like playing the piano, if everyone were in charge of only a few keys. Each hand-bell ringer has anywhere from two to eight bells, and each bell is tuned to a different pitch. The "high" bells are as small as a child's fist, and the deeper-sounding bells come as big as a paint can and weigh as much as 15 pounds.

The force behind St. Matthew's hand-bell program is Cappel, a tough-talking dynamo who coaxes, cajoles and demands beautiful music from adults and children alike, ranging from those who have never picked up a hand bell to those who have played hand bells under her tutelage for more than a decade.

Cappel came to bell-ringing quite by accident. She was directing several singing choirs at St. Matthew's in the early 1970s when someone gave the church two boxes of hand bells and an instruction book about them in 1973.

Now she works 40 to 50 hours a week directing the church's 10 bell choirs and four singing choirs.

"She's a great person," said Caitlin Trost, 16, a junior at W.T. Woodson High School who has been playing in St. Matthew's bell choirs since the third grade. "She's amazing--the work she produces out of us. We'll come in in the worst mood, and she gets the most amazing music out of us."

Cappel chooses music carefully so that even choirs full of beginners quickly produce, if not beautiful music, then at least recognizable tunes. For the younger children, Cappel puts letters on poster board that correlate to the notes each child's bell plays. That way, children just need to follow along and ring their bell on a simple song like "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

Besides their Sunday performances, the bell choirs perform and attend festivals nationwide and abroad. And each summer, Cappel leads about 50 members of the four youth choirs on a trip, where they take in the sights as well as perform at local churches.

In 1996, 57 children and 17 adult chaperons went to Atlanta, where they performed at local churches and attended several events at the Olympics. Next year, the expedition is to Florida, where bell ringers will perform and spend time at Disney World.

Brian Landers, 14, who has been been playing in the bell choir for the last seven years, said he appreciates Cappel's obvious love and enthusiasm for her choirs' music.

Cappel "is always joyful about everything, and she's always excited about stuff," he said. "She makes it a lot more fun."

CAPTION: St. Matthew's United Methodist Church's music director, Nancy Cappel, conducts a choir.

CAPTION: St. Matthew's United Methodist in Annandale has been setting the standard for hand-bell programs, above, for nearly 30 years. The church has 10 groups.

CAPTION: A youth hand-bell choir at St. Matthew's United Methodist Church performs. About 150 adults and children participate in the church's hand-bell program.