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This music therapy class in West Palm Beach rings the right mood for adults with disabilities

Exceptional Ensembell 2.jpg
Wilkine Brutus
Meghan Hanley of Creative Arts Therapies of the Palm Beaches is teaching music to ringers from the Exceptional Ensembell at the United Methodist Church of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach. The music therapy class serves adults with disabilities.

You can’t help but feel the warmth and shared laughter when you eavesdrop into Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea” sung in unison at the rehearsal.

A nonprofit serving adults with disabilities in West Palm Beach put together a small bell choir as a form of music therapy. The founders of the bell choir say the art of playing music is creating a strong bond with their peers. And there’s some long-term benefits, too.

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Bobby McFerrin's “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Justin Timberlake's “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” Joan Jett's “I Love Rock and Roll.” You name it, they’ll perform it.

Ashley Parthemer is a woman of many talents. She sings and does sign language for the United Methodist Church of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach.

And she’s also part of a group of ringers at the church called the Exceptional Ensembell. They’ve been rehearsing a broad range of music with 5-inch gold-plated handbells.

“I love music. Yeah, it's fun.” Parthemer said. “I enjoy it. I make new friends.” 

The handbell choir practices new patterns and moves to the rhythm of each sound. People in the group root for each other. More than 20 ringers are divided into different levels, from level 1 beginners to level 2 for the free and low-cost classes available at the church and online.

Ashley’s mother, Phyllis Parthemer, is the pastor of a special needs ministry at the church. She said the bells are easier to learn than other instruments.

“When you’re talking about a person who has cerebral palsy and being able to ring the bell at the right time, and the smiles on her face — 'yeah, I did it.' You know, 'yeah, that was at the right speed,' " said Parthemer, motioning her arms with excitement before describing how music improved her daughter’s mathematical reasoning.

“She's always had difficulty with number sense, so that's the counting. But she's able to hear the beat and keep to the beat, and that's also counting. So it's just kind of connecting those numbers in a whole different way now.”

And Parthemer is right. Martin Bergee, a music professor from the University of Kansas, co-authored a study that showed a strong link between the physical performance of music and math and reading achievement.

Ashley Parthemer .jpg
Wilkine Brutus
Ashley Parthemer a ringer for the Exceptional Ensembell. She also sings and does sign language for the United Methodist Church of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach.

Vicki Silver co-founded Exceptional Ensembell with Donna Maheady in 2018.

“Music is mathematical and structured. So I think what we've picked up on from the testimonials that parents have given us is that feedback,” Silver said. “The participants seem to process information better since they have the structure of the class and the music. It's exciting.”

Silver said the program previously worked with a recreation center in the Town of Jupiter.

Her late son, Josh Silver, had autism, and he played in the bell choir. He died last year from a seizure.

“It’s been my mission since January of 2021 to continue in his name. In his honor," Silver said.

Silver named the bell choir “Exceptional” because it “seemed much better than special.”

“And 'Ensembell' seems self-explanatory. We've been inclusive in our in our recruitment, finding people with all abilities, talented, quirky, interesting people," Silver said.

Co-founder Donna Maheady's daughter Lauren Maheady has autism and other disabilities. Maheady said ever since Lauren was in preschool, she's had a hard time finding musical groups that welcome people with disabilities.

“We just felt like that was a real need and something that our then children were not able to participate in,” Maheady said.

Maheady and Silver felt there was a gap wide enough to be filled and that people with disabilities aren’t defined by perceived limitations.

“Most people with disabilities, even a wide range of disabilities, can ring a bell, even if they need accommodation or somebody helping them do it,” Maheady said. “But they get the joy out of being in the group and being, you know, part of the choir.”

Exceptional Ensembell 1.jpg
Wilkine Brutus
Meghan Hanley, a certified music therapist for the Creative Arts Therapies of the Palm Beaches, teaches level 1 beginner and level 2 advance classes in-person and online. Hanley says music therapy sessions for people with disabilities can create stronger bonds with peers and improve life skills.

The ringers in the group are exceptional people with cerebral palsy, autism, down syndrome, and other disabilities.

Meghan Hanley, a certified music therapist for the Creative Arts Therapies of the Palm Beaches, said music therapy can create stronger bonds with peers and improve life skills.

Hanley often incorporates other instruments and games, such as music and movie trivia. During a break in their rehearsals, you can hear loud applause when ringers guess the tune to “A Whole New World” from the film Aladdin. Each ringer comes to rehearsals with their own unique music taste and preferences, but Hanley often surprises the bell choir with nostalgic songs.

Hanley said the music activities require some gross motor skills. And that there’s no music without strong communication between the ringers.

“Everyone's so different in terms of maybe they speak verbally. Maybe they have an adaptive device to use, visuals to point to,” Hanley said. “I have a few people who are deaf or have deaf families, so it's definitely a combination of signing, using visuals, maybe raising hands to get everyone's voice and opinion and interest heard.”

In addition to weekly in-person and online classes, the Exceptional Ensembell performed "Jingle Bells" at the tree lighting ceremony last year in Boynton Beach. The bell choir hopes to perform at more events in the near future.

Hanley said people with disabilities are often underestimated or treated like children.

“A lot of people assume because maybe they can't talk or maybe they have problems with walking or maybe they're not engaging with you that maybe they don't understand you or that they don't like music or that they really don't have musical interest,” Hanley said. “And a lot of these adults in the group, they love music from the 80s, the Beatles, the 50s. They have jobs, go to school."

"They might not always communicate in the way you're used to, but they have a whole history and interest and goals for a future.”
Meghan Hanley

Ashley Parthemer said her current favorite song is “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver. She’s been practicing it lately in an effort to produce a YouTube video soon. She said being part of the Exceptional Ensembell made her fall in love with the art of making music because listening to a variety of music usually helps her get through the day.

“It relaxes me. Like in the morning, I listen to music to help me get ready to go places,” Parthemer said. “It helps me move quicker and a lot. I love music!”

Wilkine Brutus is a reporter and producer for WLRN and a guest faculty member at the Poynter Institute. The South Florida native produces stories on topics surrounding local news, culture, art, politics and current affairs.