Carrolltowne Elementary pupils to ring bells in White House

April 05, 1994|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Staff Writer

"Bells up" comes shortly after sunup and signals the beginning of practice for 24 fifth-grade students at Carrolltowne Elementary School.

At 7:30 a.m., a bell choir of energetic children is beginning its weekly rehearsal.

"Read your notes and wait to chime in," says Karen A. Pohl, director.

"When You Wish Upon A Star" is only barely recognizable from the tinkling sounds. The director, who is preparing the group for a White House appearance in June, remains unruffled.

"It's your first time with this song," Ms. Pohl says. "Don't worry about it."

Ms. Pohl looks more like an aerobics instructor as she waves her hands, counts beats and rocks back and forth on her feet in the center of the group.

"I get a real workout," she says.

During actual performances her father, Ralph Adams, narrates for the audience so she can concentrate on the players.

Several minutes and another run-through, or two, leaves Ms. Pohl smiling and bystanders singing softly along.

"Let's do the whole song one more time, and then we will go on to the 'Battle Hymn,' " she says.

"Yeah, I have lots of notes in that one," says one bell-ringer.

The children stand at desks, covered in thick foam rubber, and form a "U" around their director. Four octaves worth of bells are arranged from the smallest to the largest.

"We could use an automatic page-turner," says Justin Waagbo as he intently follows the notes.

At the end of a song, the children mute the sound by pressing the bells into the foam rubber.

"It makes a neat sound for the ending," explains Kevin Carter, who says he can play four bells simultaneously. "And, we don't scratch the bells."

Everyone also wears white gloves to prevent skin oils from altering the bell tones.

Leah Hawes, who is visually impaired, remains at one end of the group. Her music, printed with enlarged notes, rests on a raised stand.

"I have played since third grade," says Leah. "I have a little trouble sometimes with the right timing."

She has Courtney Ackerman and Rebecca Jackson to help. They tap Leah on the shoulder seconds before her note should play.

Many children in the choir also play an instrument in the school band. Others have to start from note one and learn to read music.

"All I ask is that they try," Ms. Pohl said. "They also have to have their homework done and keep their grades up."

Between the songs, the children engage in friendly banter. When the principal announces Rebecca's birthday over the intercom, the group chimes in "Happy Birthday."

"The small bells are easy," says Justin, who rings the two largest bells. Ms. Pohl describes them as "heavy as a ham."

John Horneman says, "The big bells are heavier, but we don't have to ring them as much."

Coming to school an hour early does not dim the enthusiasm of the children, who are excited about their concert date with the president.

"We will play 30 minutes and then tour Washington," Ms. Pohl says.

The director, a bell player in her church choir for several years, is playing catch-up, she says. Ms. Pohl volunteered to direct the children in October, when the school could find no replacement for Larry Henning, who founded the group about 10 years ago. He transferred to Runnymede Elementary.

Despite a late start and several weather-related canceled practices, Ms. Pohl is confident the choir will be ready for its spring concert schedule, which culminates in the trip to Washington.

The fifth grade, the most experienced players, are the touring group. Ms. Pohl also directs the fourth grade and her own son. The younger children will play "Pomp and Circumstance" for the fifth-grade graduation.

"I am amazed they can all play so well, when they only practice once a week," says Mary Jane Platte, a kindergarten teacher whose three daughters all played in the choir. "Some of them don't even know music when they start."

Ms. Platte recalls when the parents took a turn at the bells:

"We found after one song that it is not as easy as it looks."

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