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From the Thursday The Tigard Times newspaper, dated January 11, 2001, on page A7 ...

Bell choir on fire


This blazing young music group from Tualatin Valley Junior Academy is bound for the nation's capital to perform at the presidential inaugural festivities

Story by Janie Nafsinger
Photos by Jaime Valdez

HILLSBORO — Ring of Fire is hot.

Jay Leno wants to book this group of fiery young musicians. So does President-elect Bush — and he's getting them before Leno does.

The 13 members of Ring of Fire, the fast-rising handbell choir from Tualatin Valley Junior Academy in Hillsboro, will perform their blazing brand of music at the presidential inaugural festivities this month in Washington, D.C.

They will perform several times during the inaugural parade Jan. 20, and also one hour before and one hour after the parade. The handbell choir will be on the steps of the Ronald Reagan Building, just across from the press box on the parade route.

That night, Ring of Fire will play again at the first Ronald Reagan Inaugural Ball, one of several balls that will be held during the inaugural festivities.

They plan to play 12 to 15 pieces, including "America the Beautiful."

It'll be the biggest gig yet for these 12- to 16-year-olds, who have performed at Trail Blazer games and the Crystal Cathedral in Southern California, recorded two compact discs and produced a pair of videos.

They say they're not nervous. Not yet.

"But once we get there ..." says 15-year-old Erica Aranda of Aloha, her voice trailing off as she grins.

She and the other handbell musicians — who come from Aloha, Beaverton, Hillsboro, Tualatin, Sherwood and Forest Grove — meet with the choir director, Jason Wells, to practice three times a week at their school, a Seventh-day Adventist school located on Baseline Road.

Ring of Fire, just 3 1/2 years old, is perhaps best known for its exuberance, says Wells, who played handbells as a kid in a Southern California group.

"It's kind of explosive. A comment I've heard over and over is 'I've never seen a handbell choir with this much energy and enthusiasm,"' he says.

"It's not just a musical group," Wells adds. "You've got the team sport things going on — the teamwork, the hand eye coordination and so on."

The young musicians even caught the attention of some TV folks in Southern California, who offered them a spot on the "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

The group was booked to appear on the show Dec. 21, but then the schedulers changed it to Friday night, Dec. 22, Wells explains. "And being a Seventh-day Adventist school, Friday night is our Sabbath.

They were amazed that we turned them down but were really good about it."

The show still wants Ring of Fire for a later date, Wells adds. "They're looking at getting us in after the inauguration."

The trip to the inauguration came about after Wells talked to Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith's office in Washington, got the address for the Presidential Inaugural Committee and sent a demo tape. In late December, Ring of Fire received a letter confirming their invitation to the festivities. He's heard there are more than 10,000 performers participating.

Their Jan. 18-24 trip back East will include a visit to New York City. Once they return home, they'll return to a schedule of local performances and start gearing up for the Handbell Spectacular coming up in July in Palm Springs, Calif.

There are more than 300,000 handbell choirs in the United States, most of them in churches or schools, says Wells. "In the last five or 10 years, there's been a huge growth in handbell music, I think because of its popularity in United States," he adds.

A lot of handbell music consists of arrangements of classical pieces or songs, Wells says. Two compositions in Ring of Fire's repertoire, "Capriccio" and "Tempest," were written by Kevin McChesney, a Colorado composer who flew here about seven weeks ago to work with Ring of Fire.

In handbell choirs, one bell equals one note. Ring of Fire uses 61 brass bells in five octaves, says Wells. The bells' sizes range from "a little bigger than a thimble to larger than a basketball," the director adds.

The larger bells are struck with padded mallets, and the musicians wear fabric gloves to keep oil and dirt off the bells.

Most of the kids in the handbell choir play some other instrument, Wells says. Ellen Cockerham, a 14-year-old from Tualatin, plays the violin and is in her fourth year of playing bells. Her brother Andrew, 16, is a cellist who also plays in Ring of Fire.

"It's interesting," Ellen says, "because you can have only a couple of notes and have an entire melody."

Ring of Fire's trip to the presidential inauguration will cost about $10,000, and the group is responsible for paying the entire amount. The musicians so far have raised close to $4,000 of the $10,000. They spent the Sunday before Thanksgiving making 600 apple pies that they sold, raising $3,000.

Contributors have given another $785 or so, and proceeds from the choir's CD and video sales also will go toward cost of the trip after production costs are covered.

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