Recently at a Veterans Day ceremony held at W.S. Neal Middle School in East Brewton, a group of sixth graders took to the stage and entertained the crowd with a perfect rendition of "America the Beautiful."

But the students weren't singing.

They were playing handbells.

Jaws dropped at their mastery of these instruments as the kids hit every note perfectly. How this group came to learn this rather old-school skill is a story filled with serendipity. And it all starts with pulling up carpet.

This past summer, Neal decided to host a special summer camp for about 20 students, but this was more about life skills than playing games. Along with science and reading, kids would learn everything from table setting etiquette to cookie decorating to finding out how electricity gets to their homes. This was the first camp of its kind, but there was a location problem.

The classrooms were being remodeled, with all the carpet being removed. Their best indoor option was the music room. The school had been without a music teacher for a few years, so no one really knew what would be found in the room. Teachers Tammy Bonds and Stacey Aaron started digging through boxes as they were straightening up and found a handbell. Then another. Soon they had an entire set.

You might think the story ends here without a music teacher since Bonds teaches reading and Aaron teaches English. Again, the stars aligned as Bonds has played the clarinet and Aaron the piano. With a little research on handbells, Aaron would tap out notes on the piano for the students to match while she and Bonds created a "script" for the kids to follow. Soon this became the most popular activity in the camp.

Bonds says the handbells brought home the concept of teamwork.

"I thought it was really neat for them to work together," she stated.

While some of the kids were already in the school band, handbells presented a different musical challenge. By the time the camp ended, the group had mastered a few songs.

Stacey Aaron says the handbell group had a great response to their performance.

"What started as an accidental find turned out to be one of the highlights of Camp Big Blue," she outlined. "When Ms. Updike came to me about the Veteran's Day program, I was glad the students were going to get to demonstrate what they had learned. I met with them a few times before the program, and they even got to practice in front of other students by playing for a few skills classes. The boys and girls were so excited. I have had several since the program to ask when they were going to learn some new songs. We may have started something at NMS."

The history of handbells goes back to the 17th century, and they're most often seen performed by church choirs. To see children so young both excited about and competent in the skill is something special.

There's a possibility the Neal handbell choir could perform on special occasions. Till then, the school can brag about a special set of jingle bells.

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