Handbells ring true in keeping seniors sharp, engaged and learning something new

Members of Bronze Unlimited perform a song on handbells. Music To Free is a nonprofit organization that brings handbell programs to low- and fixed-income senior living centers, veteran rehabilitation programs, and addiction treatment programs. (Courtesy Music to Free)
Listen to Neal Augenstein's report

Learning to play an instrument can be fun, entertaining, and rewarding for anyone, but it can also serve a very important purpose as you get older.

“Playing handbells is a way to help our senior population stay engaged, making music, which is a huge brain stimulation,” said Alan Payne, founder of Music To Free, a nonprofit organization which brings handbell programs to low- and fixed-income senior living centers, veteran rehabilitation programs, and addiction treatment programs. “It helps to release dopamine and elevate mood, and improve cognitive abilities.”

During COVID, Payne began thinking of teaching handbells to seniors, when he saw their reactions to performances that involved ringing the bronze bells. “They started taking pictures of themselves and videos, ringing the bells.”

“What a great instrument it is for anybody, but especially some seniors that might have some physical or mobility limitations,” said Payne. “It doesn’t require the manual dexterity of playing a traditional instrument, like a flute, clarinet or strings.”

Each senior holds a bell in each hand — each bell sounds one particular note.

“You really have to work together as an ensemble because unlike a traditional instrument, you’re not playing the entire line of music, you’re just playing your two notes,” Payne said.

Most of the seniors have never played an instrument when they were younger.

“So, here you have, senior citizens learning the fundamentals of reading music,” said Payne. “We start at the very beginning, just like you might have done in third or fourth grade, in teaching them how to read a piece of music.”

Since each senior is responsible for sounding two notes from the bells they’re holding, they must be engrossed as the musical piece unfolds.

“They have to play them at the proper time, and for the proper duration, so there’s a lot of mental work that goes into it,” Payne said.

Music To Free’s programs are provided at no cost to the participants or host facilities.

Advanced handbell ringers can participate in Bronze Unlimited, which performs fundraising concerts. The group is holding a concert Friday, at Sherwood Community Center in Fairfax, as part of a series of shows entitled, “Hope & Remembrance — A concert for those affected by cancer.”

Payne said the joy and reward of playing music can be all-encompassing for senior citizens.

“You don’t have to be a professional, but just learning that instrument is just a huge, huge mental benefit and total brain workout,” Payne said.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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