Joining hands to create music Bells: Brooklyn Park Elementary's music teacher has started handbell choirs in churches, senior centers and schools. He is preparing his students for a winter concert on Dec. 18.

November 16, 1997|By Kristi E. Swartz | Kristi E. Swartz,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It was love at first sound when Tom Neuenschwander heard handbells ringing at a music convention 25 years ago.

Since then, he has started handbell choirs around the county, in churches, senior centers and schools -- teaching students from ages 8 to 97.

Neuenschwander spends three days a week after school at Brooklyn Park Elementary School -- where he has been the music teacher for 14 years -- teaching and rehearsing with fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders. And he devotes several evenings to working with residents of three senior centers.

"When I reach Friday night, I'm all rung out," he said.

His students are preparing for a winter concert Dec. 18. Brooklyn Park is the only school in the county with a handbell choir -- and students' family and friends can hear them perform along with the school's string orchestra, band and chorus. About 15 students from each grade play in the handbell choir, which jibes with Neuenschwander's three-octave set of 15 handbells.

He bought a two-octave set for $900 in the early 1970s, and later bought the third octave for another $900 after a school fund-raiser. The bells have lasted 25 years, he said. A three-octave set now costs $7,000.

The pitch of the handbells ranges from a C-4, an octave below middle C, to a C-7, an octave above middle C.

The lowest sounds come from the heaviest bells, which weigh about 2 1/2 pounds each. The older students usually play those, he said.

Each student plays two bells, which are rung by bringing an arm to the waist, snapping the wrist forward and bringing the arm to shoulder level.

The hand makes a loop similar to the shape of a football, Neuenschwander said. When the wrist is snapped, it rotates the bell upward so that the sound resonates.

Neuenschwander, a music teacher for 36 years, has students play different bells as they learn how to read music and count out the rhythm of the notes.

Bell music is color-coded, with red notes for bells played with the left hand and blue notes for bells played with the right.

Neuenschwander arranges some of his own music for the handbell players, but he orders most of it.

He said he loves seeing students get excited about handbells and then become devoted to after-school choir practice. Some students even set up the bells before school and polish them after rehearsal, he said.

"The students that sometimes have academic difficulties come in here and do really well," Neuenschwander said. "Of course, the good kids always do well, but the kids that don't have a feeling of belonging will participate in the group, and I see a real change in their behavior."

Because of such observations, the lack of attention nationwide to music programs in schools frustrates him.

He gets a different kind of satisfaction from introducing his older students at Pascal Senior Center, Mariner of North Arundel Hospital and Manresa on the Severn to bell music.

"I leave those places feeling like a king who is 10 feet tall," he said.

While the elementary school students have played at a McDonald's, at churches and at Fort McHenry in honor of Flag Day, the senior citizens usually perform for other residents. But Neuenschwander said he's working on arranging a concert at one of the centers.

Neuenschwander isn't playing much these days, but he doesn't mind.

"I've had 25 years of handbells, and I'm good for another 25," he said. "When you're having fun, why stop?"

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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