Image Credit: Terry Blackburn

Ring of Fire Alum Leads Student Handbell Program

Tualatin Valley Academy’s handbell choir is proving to be an impactful program for students.

While the school was once renowned for its handbell ensemble, Ring of Fire, the instruments had fallen into disuse until 2016 when Michael Blackburn, Ring of Fire alumnus, stepped up to direct.

The program started small with nine students but has since expanded to 46 students in the ensemble as of this 2023–2024 school year. Blackburn directs three groups of students from third to 10th grade.

Students enjoy the collaborative nature of playing handbells. Emily, who plays in the advanced bell choir, shared, “It’s fun because we get to work together as a team to make a nice song.” With many other instruments, you can play a song all on your own, but handbells differ in that they require coordination from an entire group to complete a piece.

Blackburn said, “I continue to think of bell choir more akin to a team sport than a music group. Between the physical exertion, hand-eye coordination and the weird musical rhythms you have to perform, it's a truly unique musical instrument and experience.”

TVA students also enjoy handbells because of their dedicated teacher. Matthew, a high school student in the bell choir, appreciates Blackburn’s response to mistakes: “He treats mistakes more as growth opportunities instead of getting upset.”

Another student, Isabella, who is in her second year of playing bells and doesn’t have much prior musical experience, relays that she also enjoys Blackburn’s approachable attitude. She commented, “He is very good about helping you and not making you feel bad for asking for help.”

Blackburn’s passion for sharing the joy of handbells with students is clear whenever one talks with him about the handbell choir. He shared, “My favorite part of teaching handbells is witnessing students who didn't think they were musical and/or didn't know how to read music go from an attitude of ‘whatever’ to ‘wow, this is really fun’ in a very short period of time.”

The students and their director are both excited to be able to share their music with a wider audience this spring. They plan to play at a few churches in the Seattle area, TVA’s constituent churches, their spring recital and TVA’s spring concert.

Featured in: March/April 2024