Handbell director finds joy in her choir

Monday, October 1, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:28 a.m. CDT, Monday, October 1, 2012
The Adapted Melody Chime Ensemble in Columbia, which uses a specific method of learning through instruments, is intended for players with special needs.

COLUMBIA — Cookie Hagan uses spoons, chimes, a ukulele and an infectious grin to lead a group of 15 to 21 musicians in an undertaking she calls "an activity of love."

Hagan, 62, directs Columbia's adapted handbell choir, a group of 21 seniors and others with special needs who produce music by ringing tuned hand chimes.

Under her direction, the choir has provided entertainment at retirement centers, churches and for the opening ceremonies of the Special Olympics. 

"We consider every place we perform special," Hagan said.

Even though the group is called a handbell choir, the members use percussion instruments called hand chimes that are actually square tubes with outside clappers. The musical note is marked on each chime. 

The length and volume of the ringing is controlled by hand under the conductor's direction. Larger chimes belong to lower octaves and produce a stronger, louder ringing.

The members of Hagan's choir also play spoons and sing along as she strums her ukulele.

They play popular songs for the most part, usually gospel, boogie and Broadway tunes. Favorites are "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," "Love Me Tender," and "When You Wish Upon A Star."

According to Handbell Musicians of America, Columbia's adapted handbell choir is one of hundreds across the nation. But it is one of only a half-dozen special needs handbell choirs in the country.

Music for hand chimes is like other printed sheet music — the notes are written on a staff. For the adapted handbell choir, letters replace notes. The letters corresponding to each chime are printed inside a series of squares on the page. 

"When you hear the music, it sounds the same as if you were actually reading notes," Hagan said.

When she points to a square on a big flip chart in the front of the group, the ringers holding a chime that matches a letter will play.

"It may not be the sheet music that you pick up at the store," Hagan said. "The music has been adapted so individuals of all abilities will be able to participate."

The Rev. Stanley Williams, who began Columbia's adapted handbell choir in 1972 at Woodhaven Learning Center, developed the technique and wrote a book about his methods. Under his direction, the choir has performed in all 50 states and Canada and even at the White House.

For a while, the choir belonged to the National Benevolent Association of the Christian Church, which provides support and services for people with developmental disabilities. 

After Williams died, Hagan bought the music and the chimes from Woodhaven Learning Center for Columbia Parks and Recreation, where she worked for 32 years. 

"The bell choir is just an extension of love from Rev. Williams," she said.

Hagan hired others to lead the group until she took on the voluntary role as director 10 years ago. She also leads a senior bell choir and ukulele band.

"In my eyes, I have an opportunity to teach an adapted bell choir, and they just learn music in a different way," she said.

She first saw the Woodhaven Learning Center handbell choir as a student at Hickman High School. When she studied at Christian College — now Columbia College — a mentor advised her to counsel others through activities.

"That's how I got into the field of recreation," she said. "I teach people to learn something that, hopefully, they can help themselves with."

Through her work with Columbia Parks and Recreation, she supervised senior programs, Special Olympics and cultural art festivities. The bell choir was often entertainment at these events.

Several players, like John Pierce, have been involved with the choir since Williams was director. His favorite memories include visiting Alaska, Hawaii and Canada. He says the bell choir focuses on "bringing people joy."

Hagan keeps her rehearsals and performances lively by encouraging interaction between the players and the audience.

During a performance, audience members can expect to sing along, be called on for solos and learn how to play the spoons or chimes.

"If you have a gift, we usually notice it," Hagan said. "You will be welcome from the moment we begin. We're there because we love music and love people."

She brings both an upbeat attitude and a caring approach to her sessions.

During one recent practice, she recognized player Dale Nelfon's birthday by leading the choir in an enthusiastic, "We love you!" She also dedicated the song "Love Lifted Me" out of respect for another player's deceased aunt.

Hagan emphasizes that the choir includes players with great abilities: "I don't consider them (as having) disabilities," she said. "I see them as abilities."

She also wants to spread the word that learning the technique is not difficult and everyone is accepted.

"If you want to be a part of something that you can learn within the first session and be a part of a group of people who truly know the meaning of love," she said, "then you'd want to be in our bell choir."

Cindy Davis has been a bell choir member for over eight years and has known Hagan since she was 12. Davis' involvement with the ensemble began after her mother's death.

"Cookie got me into the bell choir because she knew I needed to keep busy and keep  from thinking about my mom," she said.

In the beginning, she said she had a tough time ringing the chime when Hagan gave the signal.

"It's hit-and-miss when you first get started because it's hard to figure out," Davis said.

Hagan said she hopes those who listen to the choir will discover an instrument they might want to play.

"Hopefully they'll learn something that they want to go home and try," she said.

The adapted handbell choir will cease practices and performances during October, but will resume activity in November.

Davis said she hopes the choir continues for a long time.

"I hope it's around for a while because it's a godsend to me," she said.

"If Cookie hadn't come around when she did, I don't know what I'd be doing. She's just a wonderful friend and you can't find another like her."

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