Sue Graves ’03 M.A. got a text one night from her boss at Melmark, an organization that serves people with intellectual disabilities. The Joybells have been invited to perform when the Pope is here…we’re in!
Graves texted back, You’re joking, right?
She wasn’t. The Joybells, a handbell choir made up of some of Melmark’s adult members with disabilities, had been chosen out of thousands of applicants to be one of the performing groups leading up to Mass during Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia.
Graves and Catie Parker ’16 M.A., co-directors of the Joybells, have led the group in performing at numerous churches, schools, and some high-profile venues—on the radio, at a Phillies game, and at the Kimmel Center. After they appeared on The Today Show last Christmas, they wondered what would be next.
“Maybe we’ll play for the Pope when he comes to Philadelphia!” somebody joked. Everyone laughed.
“I really think God has a sense of humor!” Graves says now.
The Joybells ringers were ecstatic to learn about their upcoming performance, although Graves says they have varying degrees of comprehension of who the Pope is.
The Joybells played Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee and Holy, Holy, Holy for the attendees of the Papal Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Sept. 27.
“A Joybells concert is mutually beneficial to those that are performing and those that are listening,” Graves says. “People can look at them through the eyes of what they can do rather than what they can’t do.
“And that is what is rewarding for Catie and me, that we are facilitators of that process and that they can actually change people’s perceptions by showing that they are contributing members of society.”
Graves has seen the effects the Joybells have on their audiences. “They just have a winsomeness about them. They have an openness. They’re very warm and accepting to everyone, and that comes through whether you’re talking to them or watching them perform,” she says. “They’re not trying to prove anything or put on any airs. They’re just themselves.”
People often come up to Graves after the concerts and say, “I’ve never seen anything like this before in my life,” or “I will never be the same.”
A difficult time, a special experience
Graves first heard the Joybells when they came to perform at her church. She wept as she sat in her pew listening to the heavenly music coming from people with disabilities.
Many audience members weep when they hear the Joybells, but Graves had a special reason for her tears. Her one-year-old daughter Amy had had a series of grand mal seizures that deprived her brain of oxygen, and Graves and her husband were in the process of finding out just how extensive the damage was and how it would affect Amy’s future.
“It was a difficult time, and to have that experience with the Joybells at that moment was very special,” Graves said.
In 1991 Graves was invited to be co-director of the Joybells, given her background in music education. Ten years into this job, she heard about Immaculata’s Music Therapy program and made the decision to earn her master’s degree at IU.
It wasn’t easy—Graves was still working full-time and raising children, including Amy, who required extra assistance to meet her special needs. But Graves remembers her Music Therapy professor Sister Jean Anthony Gileno, IHM not just mentoring her, but cheering her on.
Looking back now, Graves is glad she completed the program. Sister Jean passed away in 2004, and Graves misses Sister not just as a mentor but also as a friend.
Now in her 30s, Amy has served as a substitute ringer in the Joybells and has occasionally gone on tour with the group.
Communicating through music
Parker had a similar experience with a family member that led to her interest in music therapy. When she was a little girl, her father suffered a traumatic brain injury. He recovered remarkably well, and Parker believes his love of singing played a significant role in his healing as he regained speech.
After earning her undergraduate degree in music and working with some children with disabilities, Parker wanted to join a L’Arche community to work with people with special needs. But her dad advised her to earn a master’s degree in music therapy before committing to the community. He didn’t often give her advice, so she took it seriously and enrolled at Immaculata.
Soon afterward, she stumbled upon a job posting for a co-director of the Joybells. Finding a position that matched her interests so closely was “miraculous,” she said. “I can’t believe I get to do this!”
She began learning the bass clef of the Joybells’ repertoire and the system of sign language, chord numbers, and pointing that Graves and her predecessors had developed over the years to cue the ringers. Graves and Parker memorize the music and translate it into signs, which prompt the ringers during performances.
Most of the ringers have Down syndrome, and this condition is often accompanied by a strong visual memory. Given their aptitude, and the complexity of the conducting sign language the directors use, Parker says she is more likely to make mistakes than they are, and the group’s rehearsals are just as much for her as they are for the ringers. They tease each other good-naturedly when they mess up—Parker makes playfully reproving faces at the ringers when they play a discordant note, and they are quick to point out when she gives them the wrong cue.
Unlike other bell choirs, the ringers frequently change bells and move positions at the table. Since the ringers don’t read music, Graves and Parker can rearrange them to place the strongest ringers on the notes that appear at more challenging spots in the songs.
Conducting and playing both require careful focus, but over the many hours the group practices, they are freed up to focus on each other. Parker enjoys connecting and communicating with her ringers through the music.
“It’s like one organism with many parts, working together,” she says.
Musical enrichment, therapeutic benefits
Graves points out the social benefits of playing handbells and performing for the community. “It’s so fun to see them play off each other,” she says. “They’re like a bunch of teenagers!” Meeting people at concerts gives them opportunities to learn and practice appropriate behavior in public.
Graves wrote her master’s thesis on using handbells as a therapeutic intervention for people with disabilities and other marginalized populations. Playing handbells is a “total experience,” she says—not only social, but also physical, emotional, spiritual, and cognitive. “It enriches their lives on all those levels.”
Ringing the bells requires some physical strength and coordination, especially for the larger, heavier bells.
Music touches the emotions. “All the ringers say, ‘I love bell choir and the beautiful tones, the music we can make!’” Graves says.
She also sees the spiritual aspect of the handbell choir. “Music is a gift from God, and its ability to restore our souls and renew us is pretty powerful,” she commented.
Learning and playing music provides cognitive stimulation. Graves reflects on the many years that some of the ringers have spent participating in Joybells, and she knows this has made a significant difference in keeping them intellectually active and helping them to focus, follow directions, respond to cues, and learn new things.
Parker hopes to harness the cognitive stimulation provided by music learning for clinical benefit. Individuals with Down syndrome are highly prone to forming early onset Alzheimer’s. “With all the challenges they face because of their disability, it just does not seem fair that they have to face such a debilitating disease,” Parker says. She provides group music therapy to 16 groups in Melmark’s adult program in addition to co-directing the Joybells, and she has watched some of her clients begin to forget words and have trouble recognizing people.
Studies have shown that some forms of cognitive stimulation can help prevent early onset Alzheimer’s, so Parker plans to conduct a study to find out whether certain music therapy interventions could “exercise” her clients’ brains enough to stave off the disease. Music activates multiple areas of the brain and helps build neural pathways, Parker wrote in her master’s thesis. She said Lillian Eyre, Ph.D., associate professor of Music Therapy, has been extremely supportive of her research.
Having good verbal skills is linked to the prevention of Alzheimer’s, so Parker will begin with a pilot study in which she will use various music therapy techniques designed to improve clients’ speech abilities. If her study shows that these techniques are successful, she will go on to a long-term study to determine whether these interventions have potential for preventing Alzheimer’s in people with Down syndrome.
A performance with potential
Graves and Parker were excited about all the potential for the Joybells performance during the Pope’s visit, and the co-directors were not disappointed. They enjoyed seeing the Joybells surprise and bless their international audience.
Graves’ colleague Joe Reilly ’95 M.A. called her in September after the Joybells’ performance was announced. “Sister Jean would be so proud!” he said.