Cathy TaylorThis article written by Cathy Taylor, Area 9 West Texas Representative

If you are reading this article, you are probably a person who loves handbells. We love to ring, to direct, to listen to amazing groups, and to rehearse with our groups. There are so many benefits to being involved with handbells. One of my favorite things about our instruments is that they can bring the joy of music to everyone – including individuals with special needs.
Many people with disabilities love music, but the opportunities for them to participate in a musical performing group are often limited. Most instruments require specialized techniques of blowing, finger placement, and so on. And reading conventional music notation is beyond the capabilities of most of these individuals. However, almost anyone can learn to make a handbell ring with a little practice. And with a system of Adaptive Music Notation (AMN) – using letters and colors to represent the musical notes – special needs handbell choirs can provide the same benefits to their ringers that we all enjoy and sometimes take for granted.
The Abilene Independent School District (AISD) recently celebrated the fortieth anniversary of special needs handbells in their district. The group began in 1978 under the direction of Letha McGrew, who developed the music reading system for her high school special education students. Originally called the Woodson Handbell Choir, now performing as Soundwave, they developed into an exceptional performing group, presenting concerts in Abilene and throughout Texas. During its history, the group has performed on NBC’s Today, at the White House, at the Texas Rangers Baseball Club, at the 2005 AGEHR National Seminar in Dallas, and at the 2014 Area 9 Summit in Ardmore (OK) – just to name a few highlights.
Other organizations serving adults with disabilities have followed the lead of the AISD program and now have handbell choirs of their own. One such group is the Bell Peppers of Disability Resources, Inc. in Abilene, which includes some former Woodson Handbell Choir ringers. The Brookwood Community in Houston and High Point Village in Lubbock also have outstanding handbell programs.
The foundation of these groups is the AMN system, which simplifies the music notation and makes it accessible to these special ringers. The letters are the note names, and the colors indicate which “C” it is – C4, C5, C6 are each written in a different color. The ringers look at a row of boxes with colored letters in each box, the director points to each box in the appropriate rhythm, and each ringer plays their bell whenever it appears. Historically, the music has been written on long scrolls, and the director unrolls the scroll as the music is performed. Now Soundwave in Abilene as well as Brookwood Community have each developed a digital format to create and present the music.
The benefits of using handbells with special needs ringers are numerous. The ringers learn to work as a team, to depend on each other to create a performance, and to experience the pride and satisfaction of a job well done. Attention span often increases as they learn to focus on the music in order to perform. Their families and friends also have the experience of seeing their loved one perform well, receive that standing ovation, and see the joy on their faces. Audiences are often moved to tears as they have listened to beautiful music played by ringers with significant limitations. Many of these ringers have experienced difficulties in their lives; but through the handbell choir, they experience success. Through public performances, audiences are made aware of the abilities of people with disabilities. Plus, ringing handbells is just plain fun!
As a former director of the Woodson Handbell Choir, current director of the Bell Peppers, and the parent of a daughter with special needs who has been able to share my love of handbells through these programs, I will be forever grateful that the instrument that I love is truly for everyone. Countless lives have been touched and enriched by the use of handbells; hopefully, there are many more to come in the future!
If you are interested in more information about the AISD handbell choir and its history, including a look at Soundwave’s digital music system, here is a video that was created for the fortieth anniversary celebration.