My celebration of the holiday season has always involved making Christmas music with people large and small. Happily, my life in Santo Domingo continues the pattern of making special music in honor of the Christ Child. The producer of a musical group who play bells and chimes, Nuria Martinez, asked me to provide keyboard accompaniment for their Christmas concerts. Since this is my first experience performing with bells and chimes, and since the musicians are all children, I’ve found the rehearsals particularly interesting.
The performances include various other instrumentalists and vocalists of all ages who add color to the ensemble, plus a narrator to provide continuity and cover while the musicians reassemble themselves. On occasion visiting choral groups contribute. With so many performers involved, anything can happen. Each night is new and I’m excited to see how it will unfold. With children, there’s always serendipity; with a senior accompanist, there’s always arthritis. Will my fingers move tonight?
History of the bell and chime choir
The bell choir has an interesting history. Nuria Martinez began her first bell and chime group for children and teens in her home country of Puerto Rico. When humanitarian work took her husband to Guatemala, she left the bells with her daughter to continue the program. Mrs. Martinez then set up another bell and chime choir for young performers in Guatemala until the instruments all disappeared in a car-jacking. She thinks the thief may have been very disappointed to get only a bunch of bells for his effort. So Mrs. Martinez outfitted the Guatemalan choir a second time. When her husband was transferred to Santo Domingo, she left the bells in Guatemala under the direction of a competent conductor who could continue teaching music skills to another generation of children.
The Santo Domingo bell and chime choir is Nuria Martinez’ fourth set-up. The bell choir consists of 11 stations comprising 4½ octaves, with some stations duplicated. The bell ringers are children and youths age 10 through 18. The chime choir spans 3 octaves, again with certain doubling of instruments to handle a wide repertoire. The chimes are played by younger children learning musical skills, who will eventually move on to play in the bell choir. Auditions are held in January with performances at Easter time. The children take a summer break and then a rigorous fall rehearsal schedule culminates in 7 or 8 Christmas concerts in various churches (recently a hospital has been added) throughout the country.
The legacy of music
What a legacy! A group of children in three different countries is being taught how to read music, follow a conductor, and feel the power of making good music. The young musicians take on the responsibility of cleaning and caring for the bells and chimes. They must set them up correctly for various songs, know when to wear gloves, where to hold the bell for a specific effect, and how to create a unison strike in time with the conductor. Along with musical skills come personal skills—punctuality, discipline, and concentration.
Some people say that music by its very nature is sad. Not in a bell choir! There is nothing but joy in the sound of chimes and bells. Right notes, wrong notes, it’s all a celebration.