On the outskirts of Rochester, New York, Melissa Davis directs a bell choir. Not just any bell choir—her 30 ringers are part of the Arc of Monroe County, which offers services for adults with intellectual and other developmental disabilities. Melissa faces extraordinary challenges at her Friday morning rehearsals, and she uses ordinary measures to achieve her success.

Melissa gathers support from her surroundings in several ways. An internal sound system announces the rehearsals throughout the building so her ringers will know it’s time for bells. She also enlists the help of the facility staff to bring her ringers to the rehearsal space if needed. For those of us with more technology-capable ringers, do we provide the equivalent reminders and assistance?

Melissa strives to give her ringers something to focus on. In her case, Melissa constantly moves throughout the room, waving her arms to alert color-coded groups when to ring. Melissa describes her directing as a “dance,” choreographed to keep her ringers engaged in the music. In your own groups, are you and your ringers as focused as you want to be?

Melissa and some of her Arc ringers

I met Melissa in Syracuse, New York, at the Area 2 Festival Conference. She attended classes and ringing sessions, seeking more ideas that might work with the Arc ringers. What self-improvement opportunities do you find? Handbell Musicians of America provides many resources to improve or refresh your handbell skills through ringing events, master classes, National Seminar, and so much more.

All the Arc ringers benefit from Melissa’s careful balance of accommodating their limitations and encouraging them to do their best. Melissa manages a huge range of abilities within her group and is continually finding new ways to keep everyone performing up to his/her potential. I interviewed two of Melissa’s ringers, Louise and Francis, and asked them about their concerts – do they get nervous? They both said “YES!” but very quickly assured me that Melissa tells them just to watch her and they will be fine. Does this sound familiar?

Mya talks with some of the Arc ringers, then discusses the program with Melissa

Melissa takes her group on the road for concerts outside the Arc facility. She organizes all the transportation of wheelchairs and walkers to get 30 ringers ready to perform. What a logistics challenge! It makes the effort of taking a mobile quartet/sextet outside our own rehearsal spaces seem so easy.

When asked about advice to other directors who might want to attempt a special-needs choir, Melissa offered: “I think one thing I would say to people looking to start their own ensemble would be not to be afraid to reach out to the local organizations who are already supporting people with disabilities for guidance. Most would be excited to see an opportunity like this open up for the people they care for. The direct support professionals who already work every day with people with disabilities are an invaluable resource for the best and most effective ways to reach them on many levels, whether they have musical experience or not. Or, they could always contact me and I’d be happy to help!”

Melissa Davis mdavis@arcmonroe.org

Creating music as part of a team is possible in many extraordinary situations. Please listen to the heartwarming interview with Melissa, her assistant Heidi, and her two ringers, Louise and Francis, in the Overtones Online Edition. You’ll find out where Melissa puts her “STOP” sign and hear Louise and Francis talk about their favorite bell songs.

Mya Dundzila mdundzila@handbellmusicians.org

Mya Dundzila

East Regional Membership Coordinator


CLICK HERE to see more photos of the Arc program

For another inspiring special needs success story, check out Joseph Pinson’s website www.bellband.org.