Saturday, June 6, 2009

Hark, Hear the Bells

Published in Prime Time, a section of the Lincoln Journal-Star, January 29, 2008
Copyright Lee Enterprises, Inc. Jan 29, 2008. Used with permission.

Gramercy Hill Bell Choir keeps music ringing

There's nothing quite like the music of a bell choir. And there are few bell choirs like this one.
For about 20 years the bell choir at Gramercy Hill Retirement Community has delighted audiences, playing primarily for local senior care facilities. But its performance venues have included some glitzy locations as well, such as the Governor's Mansion and Omaha's Orpheum Theater.

Fourteen women make up the current bell choir, said director Patty Carlson. One group reads music and plays traditional bell choir arrangements in harmony.

The other group uses a method called "direct cue," in which the director points to the individuals when it's their turn to ring. With direct cue, the choir plays the melody line only and is usually accompanied by recorded music. This method works well for those who never learned to read music or those who can no longer see well enough to follow the notes, Carlson said.

While most bell choirs stand, the Gramercy group plays seated at a long table. Some members use walkers. One uses a wheelchair. One needs a white cane to find her way to the table and watches carefully to see when the director points to her, because she can see only shadows.

The group plays mostly '40s and '50s hits, folk songs, hymns, patriotic numbers and Christmas carols. "I try to find music they're familiar with," Carlson said.

The bell choir was started in 1988 by Nancy Tinean, who was then the activity director at Gramercy Hill. Residents helped raise money for the bells through craft sales and donations.
Nancy Nemec became activity director in 1989 and led the bell choir until 2000. It was "uncanny," she recalls, how important the bell choir was to its members, something you can't really understand unless you're involved.

"There's something about music that brings people together, and there's something about a bell choir that's different because of the interdependence," she said. "It's like every person is a key on the piano, and if one of the keys is missing, you can't make music. In a band, everybody plays all the notes, and if something's gone, you just kind of go on. In a chorus, it all still happens, even when someone's missing. But in a bell choir, because no one else is going to play your note, it's just missing."

Nemec recalls how the choir traveled a hundred-mile radius around Lincoln, playing for churches, parties and other gatherings as well as senior care facilities. One Christmas they performed 13 times. They were the featured choir for the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers national convention, where they played on stage at the Orpheum, using the direct cue method accompanied by grand piano. Nemec remembers turning around and seeing the audience in tears, visibly moved by what the group was doing.

The bell choir allows seniors to continue making music, Nemec said. "Your voice cracks, your fingers won't play a trumpet anymore, you try to play the piano and it's hard, but this let people play into their late 90s without a problem," she said.

Some members would be aging to the point where they did very little, Nemec said, but they still played their bells. A group like this gives people a reason to get out of their rooms, a reason to get together with others, a reason to get dressed up and go out and perform.

At 96, Mary Ann Hill can no longer play the piano, but she enjoys working together with others in the bell choir to create beautiful music. She's played in both the traditional and the direct cue choir for six years. "It's relaxing to me," she said. "I can just let loose."

"I think it's good for us older people, to keep the cobwebs out," said Margaret Bullickson, 83, who has played in the traditional bell choir for three years. Although she doesn't have any musical background and can't remember even hearing a bell choir before she moved to Gramercy Hill, she found it easy to learn to read the music because each individual's notes are marked. She appreciates the fellowship with other members and the music itself. Sometimes she comes early to listen to the cued group practice. And it's always a good feeling to hear the audience applaud and express their appreciation.

Maxine Wolf, 86, said the most satisfying audiences are the Alzheimer's patients. She recalls playing for the Alzheimer's section at the Arbors. When they played the traditional hymns and familiar old songs such as "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," the residents began singing along. "It seemed to bring back memories for them," she said.

Choir members agree the best part of being in a choir is the fellowship with other members. Director Patty Carlson enjoys the camaraderie as much as the members do. "I've never met a more delightful group of people to work with," she said. "Music is such an individual thing, and it's such a joy to share my love of music with them."

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