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At age 3, Benjamin Galyean is already reading music, and so is 6-year-old Jesse Dittrich, who has been diagnosed with a form of dyslexia.
For almost 10 years, Charlotte McPherson, director of the Joybell Ringers at Galax’s First Baptist Church, has taught music to numerous families as siblings and moms come together.
Her classes range from 2-year-old tots in the Baby Bell class to home-schooled teens and 30-something mothers in Beginner Bells and Joybell Ringers.
“He’s just starting out in this class, and he’s looking forward to the whole year,” said Jesse’s mother, Janice Dittrich. “It’s really helping him to use both sides of his brain and distinguish between the two sides of his body.”
On a Thursday rehearsal, synchronized handbells chime, ring and cluck through halls of the church as teens and toddlers prepare for concerts and serving the community. Its all directed by McPherson.
On the first day Lynn Pratt attended class, she wasn’t expecting her 7-year-old son Ethan to learn much —just to ring some bells.
“I had no idea the depth of music she was going to teach them. She’s a natural teacher.”
That was eight years ago. Now her children — Ethan, 15, and Olivia, 13 — are members of the Joybell Ringers. Ethan even has his own solos. Pratt became a permanent fixture — ringing bells while holding her baby on her back.
Because the classes are held every Thursday during public school hours, McPherson has a class filled with 29 home-schoolers and some moms, too.
She opens the handbell choir class to families, including mothers, fathers, siblings, cousins, friends and home-schooled children.
“It’s fun because even when you start out, you can play music that still sounds pretty. And for home-schoolers, it gives them a chance to be with their friends,” said Briana Bennett, 15. “Music really enhances my life and sets me apart from others.”
Bennett was recently given a scholarship to attend the Distinctly Teen Symposium at the 12th annual American Guild of English Handbell Ringers in Orlando. She’ll learn more about the art of handbell ringing and directing and meet with other teens who share the same passion.
Parent Michelle Galyean described McPherson as a wonderful teacher who doesn’t want anything in return. Instead, McPherson teachers her students to serve the community by using their talents. Galyean has three children in the choir: Benjamin, Jackie and Joseph.
Last year the group performed 11 programs and applied their music as therapy while performing at nursing homes, hospitals, homeless shelters and retirement communities.
At each performance, McPherson explains the songs so listeners can enjoy the meaning behind the chimes. Listeners are usually drawn to smiles or tears, she said.
She describes how one song represents the life of Jesus, with soft sounds at the beginning illustrating the birth, and hard tones towards the end representing death.
“Through the music, it’s almost like you can hear the nails being driven into his hands,” McPherson said.
“One lady was in tears and talked about how the music touched her spirit. I just hope people feel blessed by his music by having heard something beautiful.”
McPherson believes that music improves eye-hand coordination and mental connection, and that it can bring two people together who don’t speak the same language.
She recalled how her daughter, a violist, has played with others who didn’t speak English, where music was the only common language. They had a great time playing together, she said.
Although students aren’t required to be members of the church, McPherson said it is rewarding to know that two handbell choir members were saved after joining the group. Not only do students learn music, but also life lessons.
“I want them to gain a solid education in music literacy, love music, love playing bells, respect and love each other and learn the heart of giving through outreach efforts.”
The History of Joybell Ringers
First Baptist Church of Galax owned a set of three-octave handbells in 1977. And in 1979, local Buck Higgins donated two more octaves.
“This was the first time I had seen handbells in church,” said McPherson, a member of First Galax Baptist Church. “I wanted to do this, I thought, and I knew this would be a good way for me to get involved in a music group.”
Although McPherson created a small handbell choir, there weren’t enough people from 1982 to the mid-1990s to keep the choir going. Most members had other commitments.
Unlike a big band, handbell students are assigned to certain notes, in which every component is important. If one student doesn’t show up, the songs won’t sound as they should.
So after the first handbell group folded, McPherson said her prayers and, finally, in 1999, she got what she had hoped for. Her friend, who had seven home-schooled children, made a bright alternative.
“You know, I almost have enough children to form a handbell choir, why don’t you teach them,” McPherson’s friend asked.
That was nearly 10 years ago. McPherson has now taught dozens of families, and today she has 29 committed home-schoolers in class. And First Baptist owns the largest set of handbells in the area.
Students are lost from time to time to other extracurricular activities such as football or dance lessons. But it has been through love and prayer that McPherson has maintained family members who come to the class eager to learn.
McPherson studies each week with handbell choir director Debbie Rice in Winston-Salem, N.C., and brings back new teaching methods. The Galax instructor performs in Winston-Salem with the adult handbell group, “Rejoice.”
Her goal is to become the next touring handbell choir.
“Some are expecting a cute program, but are shocked by how wonderful these students are.”
• For more information about participating with the JoyBell Ringers, contact McPherson at 236-5973.