Bonita Middle handbell choir rings in the holidays

The holiday season is the busiest time of year for the 11-member Bonita Springs Middle School handbell choir

In one person's hand alone, a bell simply peals.

Eleven musicians make it a choir.

Resonating roundly and solidly, each note forms the total instrument, each song makes up the concert from the county's only middle school handbell choir, a group of students from Bonita Springs Middle School.

Bonita Springs Middle School musical director Ken Watkins leads the school's bell choir Tuesday at the Estero Life Care Center, where the group entertained the residents with a variety of holiday music selections.

Photo by MICHEL FORTIER, Bonita Daily News

Bonita Springs Middle School musical director Ken Watkins leads the school's bell choir Tuesday at the Estero Life Care Center, where the group entertained the residents with a variety of holiday music selections.

Played for centuries, the bells are a beautiful throwback, a relic that charms the select few chosen each year to master them.

"They just sound so pretty," said 12-year-old choir member Amanda Hobbs.

This time of year in particular, when the simple understated sound of the handbells seem so central to the season, many people agree.

Gloved in white, with blue robes trailing to their ankles, Hobbs and her classmates performed for residents at the Life Care Center in Estero on Tuesday, ringing out "Deck the Halls," "Up On the Rooftop" and "Come All Ye Faithful" in careful, classic form.

About 70 percent of music for handbells is sacred, said Ken Watkins, the school's music director.

Still popular with churches, the instruments find their way into secular performance as well, lending themselves to patriotic performances among others.

Students with a good understanding of the musical alphabet and rhythm pick up the bells readily, he said. Each member of the choir is responsible for a select few notes, one must follow or blend with the other with perfect anticipation and timing.

Each bell, generally held upside down and rung with an emphatic wrist motion, is played at a different time. The middle school musicians hold one in hand, as other bells lay at the ready in front of them, ready to be swapped out when a new note is needed.

Openings for 12 spots on the handbell choir — 11 performers and one alternate — yields many more applications each year, Watkins said.

"It comes down to who scores the highest," he said, noting that among the skilled musicians who express interest, marks in the highest 90s are the norm.

Most also pursue jazz, concert or honors band, he said, and take private lessons.

For those with aspirations toward a future in music, playing several instruments, particularly the piano, is key, he added.

For some students, like Hobbs, the choir is a legacy.

She is now performing in her second year. Her sister also played the handbells, she said.

Announcer John Christiansen started introducing the choir's numbers six years ago when his granddaughter, now a senior in high school, rang handbells.

As the tolls of the bells fade away at the end of each song, he introduces the next number, encouraging the audience to sing along.

"Boy those handbells are pretty," he said to the crowd. "There is something special about listening to Christmas carols played by a handbell choir."

Though the holiday season is especially busy, the handbell choir has engagements year-round, including performances in the past at Disney World and the EPCOT Center.

This year, Desiree Stolte, 13, acted as a liaison between the Life Care Center, where her mom works, and the choir, of which she is a member.

After the show, she and the other ringers circulated around the crowd, shaking hands and giving holiday greetings. Stolte, who volunteers at the center, checked to see how the residents liked the performance.

"They loved it," she said.

© 2005 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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