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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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'Angels' ring in their message

Pennsylvania bell choir does more than perform

Musician Jessica Cuff enjoys a large audience at choir appearances; she's been known to comment when she thinks a church isn't full enough. Choir member Don Chesnut simply enjoys "everything about it."

It is the Angel Handbell Choir based at St. John Lutheran Church, Mercersburg, Pa. The choir is made up of 13 physically and/or mentally disabled adults from eight denominations. The choir makes appearances for the community and churches eight or nine times a year.

St. John started the choir in 1987 when one of the Angels' parents donated two octaves of bells. Nancy Rice, choir director at St. John, developed a system of musical notation for the choir. When directing the choir, Rice points to colored circles on her easel. Only two of the Angels, one of whom is hearing impaired, are cued by helpers.

One of the most difficult pieces the choir performs is Pachelbel's Canon in D, which they worked on for five years.

Rice emphasizes that the Angels are musicians. Each one is responsible for knowing when to ring his or her bell, whether to play loudly or softly and how long to hold a note. "This method leads to independence," she says. "Most people hearing us for the first time are in awe."

When the Angels play in a church, Rice says they contribute to the worship, not just perform. "They have a mission," she says. "This gives others an appreciation for what 'special needs' people can do."


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