Even though Christmas is still three months away, the Music Suite at University Baptist Church is filled with the soft sounds of carols every Wednesday afternoon.
That’s when members of the bell choir Bells Jubilate practice the seven or eight songs they will perform in the community this December.
Their leader is Kay Hawthorne, who started the group in 1999 and runs a tight rehearsal keeping the ringers from the church as well as from congregations of other denominations on the right page of their music and with the right beat.
“She never misses hearing when someone has a wrong note,” said Lynda Maestri, an Episcopalian and member of the choir.
“She can tell where it comes from, too,” said Bonnie Ellis, who has been a member of bell choirs at University Baptist for 20 years.
Practices, which last an hour and a half each week, are a combination music lesson, therapy session and party.
“It is fun,” Hawthorne said. “We are a group that is very close and caring of each other and very dependent of each other. If you don’t play your bell, no one else will be playing it. It’s not like a choir where you have six sopranos where one can step in.”
Each person in the group is responsible for two diatonic notes plus any of the sharps and flats that go with those notes. Many in the group of 14 or so ringers have little musical experience.
“Kay is very patient with those of us who are not musical,” Maestri said.
“We would have been booted out of every other bell choir in Baton Rouge,” said Melanie Boyce, a Catholic who describes her work with the choir as a “Zen thing.”
“I don’t think of anything when we are practicing,” she said “I just count.”
The handbell program began at University Baptist Church in the fall of 1980, when Wayne and Nelda Miley donated a three-octave set of Malmark bells to the church. Ringers in the first group performed for church services and at various community events.
Later, Dr. Al and Nikki Bertrand donated a fourth octave, and a fifth octave was added with church funds and various donations.
“In more recent years, a three-octave set of hand chimes was purchased and a fourth octave donated in memory of Lois Draayer, who rang with the group for many years,” Hawthorne said.
In 1999, the church’s bell choir was reorganized when it became difficult to find enough church members who could practice in the daytime.
Although one group continues to ring at church services, Bells Jubilate was formed not just with church members but also with friends from other churches.
This group practices during the day and prepares programs for the community at local nursing homes, assisted living facilities and at special community events.
In addition, Bells Jubilate has rung for Rural Life Christmas, St. Francisville’s Christmas in the Country and the lighting of the Christmas tree at Nottoway.
The group has provided programs for senior groups at Istrouma Baptist Church, University Baptist Church and First Baptist Church of St. Francisville.
Bells Jubilate prepares two programs a year, a Christmas program and a spring program of patriotic music and other songs.
“It takes us a whole season to learn the program,” said Carolyn Moore, who is also an Episcopalian. “By the beginning of December, we will know all eight songs.”
After the spring program, the group takes off the summer. “I feel bereft in the summertime,” Ellis said.
The church absorbs a lot of the cost of the program. At the end of the year, the members generally give Hawthorne a gift, which she uses to buy music and other equipment.
“The equipment is rather costly,” she said. “It’s insured for $15,000, but I doubt that would cover it if we had to replace it.”
Boyce admits that when the group first started, it was not that good.
“Kay used to stop in the middle of a song sometimes when we were performing and have us start over,” she said. “When we started, we were that bad.”
Once while performing at an elementary school, Hawthorne asked the students if they could recognize the song the group was playing.
“It sounds like some kind of a Hanukkah song,” one of the children said.
That doesn’t happen these days. With much practice, the group has really gotten good. The ringers now use mallets, chimes, triangles and tom-toms along with the bells.
Members seem to enjoy the practices.
“It is really good mental exercise. Besides, it’s fun,” said Vivian Lehman, a 20-year bell choir veteran.
Moore attributes much of the fun of the program to working with Hawthorne. “We’re the only bell choir in Baton Rouge that tells our leader what to do,” Boyce said with a laugh.
For Hawthorne, whose husband, Bob, is the only male in the choir, the “joy of the outreach” makes the project worthwhile.“In November we think, ‘Why are we doing this?’” she said. “In December, we remember.”
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