Friday, July 20, 2007

Bayou Bell Ringers

Note: If you tried to click on the link for the Bell Ringers' website, I made a mistake when originally typing the address, but I fixed it and the link now works.
I've been wanting to post something for a while about one of my favorite organizations: the Bayou Bell Ringers, a handbell choir for the disabled. This organization is very dear to my heart because I volunteered with them as a student worker for over 6 years, and I still help out as frequently as I can. My family is very close to the director's family. Mr. Aaron (the director) is one of the most talented men that I have ever met. The arrangements that he creates never fail to amaze me!

My twin sister, my best friend, and I started volunteering about 6 or 7 years ago. Originally, our job as student workers was to play the part of any bell ringer that was unable to come to practice and keep the part for them. Thus the name for us student volunteers became the "Bell Keepers.” As the group grew, though, our jobs became more and more complex. Now, as well as playing the parts of missing bell ringers, the bell keepers play parts that are too difficult or complicated for the disabled members to play, help bell ringers to learn their parts, and handle bell changes. Essentially, the job of a bell keeper now is to make sure that everything is running smoothly and on time, especially at performances.
I miss working with the Bell Ringers so much. The people in that group became almost like my second family. I love each and every one of them so much. They are definitely very special people. It is truly amazing to watch how much they grow and change through being in the choir. I have seen this organization help so many people. For a lot of them, the highlight of their week is the days when they practice. Many of the members were very socially withdrawn before they joined the choir, and it is amazing to see how much this group has helped them come out of their shells! They all love to play, and they just live for praise.

The group consists of about 30 members ranging in age from about 12 to 60. Each member usually has from one to four regularly assigned bells, but every song has a slightly different setup for the bells. Often if a ringer can’t handle playing all of his parts on a particular song, one of his bells will be given to someone else for just that song. Since the group has nearly 200 bells, there always is a lot of moving and changing of bells before and after every song.
There is a wide range of disabilities in the group. Two of the bell ringers can’t do much more than control the movement of one or two of their fingers. A local inventor, however, developed machines that allow them to ring along with everyone else by simply pressing a button. Other ringers are blind, but they wear little sensors on their legs that tap them when they need to play.

Because the members can’t read music, Mr. Aaron, who is a music therapist, has developed an original hand signaling technique with a different signal for each chord. There are at least 300 different signals! It takes a while to learn all of them, but Mr. Aaron has always impressed me with his patience in handling the members. He is so very good with them. The very fact of there being so many different signals is actually wonderful therapy, especially when that is incorporated with the dexterity that is necessary for ringing the bells. It strengthens the ringers’ memory as well as their fine motor skills. One of the bell ringers who has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair was unable to do anything more than press a huge button when she first joined the choir. As her fine motor skills progressed, though, she has gradually become able to press many small buttons as well as maneuver several tiny switches.

Although I am too busy with my college courses now to do much with the Bayou Bell Ringers any more, I still love to help out whenever I can. My dad is the sound manager for the group, and my younger sister has been a bell keeper for about a year or so now. I think that everyone should have a chance to hear the Bell Ringers perform at least once. It never ceases to amaze me what the Lord has been able to accomplish through Mr. Aaron's willingness to help these people! I have learned so much through working with the bell ringers. I know that they always tell me that I have been a blessing to them, but I know that they have blessed my life with much, much more than I could have ever given them.