For a group of students Fire Prairie Upper Elementary, the morning bell at school sometimes rings early.
It means they are part of a unique club, though.
About 20 fifth and sixth graders in the Fort Osage School District are part of the Timber Chimes, a handbell choir that music teacher Lisa Long started in 2008.
“We just had two octaves (25 bells),” said Long, who has been playing or directing handbells for about three decades. “I had found some handbells in the district just by chance, under a desk, and we were able to purchase third octave later.
“I'm so grateful to have the opportunity to do this here; it's just a special niche.”
Long offers a handbell class in summer school, and it's often a recruiting tool for the Timber Chimes, which is an audition group that meets weekly before school and performs a couple concerts a year at the school. The next concert will be in early spring.
Fifth grader Pierce Hanson said he started playing in the summer school class.
“My brother was in the handbells, and I thought it was neat,” Hanson said, adding that he most enjoys concerts, “so we can perform what we practice, and it shows how good we are.”
People probably have the best chance of hearing handbell music at some churches, or perhaps a college, though the Handbell Musicians of America lists just 68 member college groups (the closest one at William Jewell College). The high cost of handbells – running from hundreds into thousands of dollars in some cases – not to mention the necessary gloves and foam pads – can make them prohibitive. In many places, the necessary time and interest from students and teachers alike might not exist.
“There used to be not a lot of music for beginning handbells, but it's grown immensely,” Long said. “It's very good for them mentally. It's brain work; it's a distinct way of learning.”
As opposed to individual instruments where a single player covers all the notes written for a part, a handbell choir essentially functions as one instrument, with single players responsible for ringing a few bells – and thus only looking and counting for a few different notes on a scale.
The Timber Chimes also at times use hand chimes (tuned square tubes that function similar to handbells) and use soft mallets to strike the bell for a more “clunk” sound.
“Some people thought it would be boring, but when I got the hang of it, I liked it,” said Lacey Zorn, a sixth grader who started playing last year. “(I most enjoy) looking at the notes and just sight-reading. When you hear the melody, it's just a good feeling.”
As a unique activity, it's easy to imagine how handbell performance would elicit at least a curious response from other students.
“I hope so,” Long said, “but I probably get more response from parents. There aren't a whole lot of public schools that have them.”