Journey to Excellence
Ring of Fire
It is 6:59 p.m. and the sanctuary of the First Church of God in Vancouver, Washington, is buzzing as people wait to hear the Tualatin Valley Junior Academy’s (TVJA) bell choir, Ring of Fire. After a prayer and brief introduction, thirteen teenagers march in at 7:00 p.m. to take their places behind tables weighted with 61 bronze bells. Their director, Jason Wells, assumes his position and, with a blur of motion and the blended sounds of Laudation, another leg in their journey to excellence begins.
This journey was born in the mind of Jason. His idea was to take thirteen teenagers in grades 7–10 at an Adventist junior academy, mold them into a world-class handbell organization and reach out to the world. At TVJA, he found not only willing students, but also a school-wide commitment to excellence that fed the fiery spirit this group named for the many volcanoes that ring the Pacific Ocean.
Since Ring of Fire began in 1997, the group has traveled extensively and played in venues not usually associated with bell choirs. Their unique audiences have included schools, churches, corporate functions, charity events, NBA basketball games, national handbell conventions and three official functions during the inaugural celebrations for President George W. Bush.
Their style of ringing is unique in the handbell world because they memorize all of the music for their concerts and play it with energy and focused motion. Kevin McChesney, a world-renowned handbell music composer and arranger, says, “Ring of Fire has been one of the top groups to raise the musical bar for other handbell choirs. They have achieved things musically that no other group has ever done, and they have demonstrated the value of attention to detail and precision.”
This level of excellence does not come without a price. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning the members gather at 7:15 to practice for an hour before school and then they stay for an extra hour after school on Fridays. “It takes an incredible commitment,” says ninth grader Allison Wyman. “Even when the other kids are out of school for breaks we come in for all-day practices.”
The ringers miss about 25 days of school as they go on various tours each year sharing their passion for excellence. In spite of all the travel, the students must maintain A/B grades and get all of their homework turned in. This requires discipline for the students as well as dedication from their teachers. “With the amount of school that we miss, we’ve learned to discipline ourselves and do large portions of our work on the plane and in cars. Our teachers are absolutely amazing and spend a great deal of time making sure we understand the material and get caught up,” says Jessye Baker, a ninth grader and two-year veteran of the Fire.
But despite the extra effort it takes, the school remains staunchly supportive of the Ring of Fire tours. “Ring of Fire is one of the finest bell choirs in the world and because of what they have attained, they have an obligation to the handbell world to showcase their music,” declares Jesse Cone, TVJA principal and ardent Ring of Fire cheerleader.
Desire, talent, commitment and a willingness to excel are the traits of a Ring of Fire member. Several of the members have had older siblings who were members of the Fire, which inspired them to become members themselves. Other members just wanted to become part of the adventure. “When I first saw the handbell choir I told myself that I had to be one of the 13 ringers. To me it was the coolest thing I had ever seen,” says Jeff Terreros, a ninth grader. He reports that it takes a good alarm clock to wake him up at 5:30 in the morning to get ready for bells, as well as perseverance, practice and the belief in his ability to give the best.
Their best is what is demanded by their director. Their principal says that these students are normal adolescents, and it takes a lot of effort to learn the music and to perform it in concerts. “Jason believes that they can do it and inspires them to rise above the mark. He helps them to see beyond themselves to achieve more,” says Jesse.
Jesse’s support is definitely appreciated. “He is one of the most passionate educators I know pushing for excellence in education,” says Jason.
Jason not only demands perfection of his students but also rewards them when they achieve it. Each of the ringers echoes the others as they talk about those rewards. They tell of the closeness they feel with the other ringers, calling them brothers and sisters. They talk about the excitement of travel and the experiences of seeing sights that most teenagers never see. They tell stories of meeting fascinating people. Allison Wyman, a ninth grader said, “After on concert, a middle-aged woman walked up to me and told me she had cancer. She said after watching us, so exuberant and energetic, it gave her courage to keep on fighting and never to give up hope.”
Jason tells the story of the Ring of Fire’s debut at Pinnacle 2000, a world handbell gathering presented by the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers in Las Vegas.
“Here we were, playing for the top people in the bell world, the composers who wrote our music, the very best handbell choirs in the world, and these kids were playing their hearts out. With every piece they were blowing the doors off the auditorium, and the audience was going crazy! It seemed at times the applause was longer than the pieces we were playing and the kids were grinning ear to ear. The response made the intense work all the more worth it. It was a validation of all their blood, sweat, and tears. And I think they saw something special about these kids, a strong passion for Christ in all that they do.
“After we left the stage to multiple standing ovations, we were all so wired. It was the emotional high of a lifetime. Lisa Moreno, a two-year ringer and an eighth grader who had been essential in the huge drive to play at that level, looked up and asked, ‘Well, are you proud of us?’ I broke down.
“What can one say to that? They so far flew over the bar that had been set, I could only sit back in awe as the tears streamed down my face. I managed to get a ‘yes, more than you will ever know’ out. It was a Ring of Fire moment I'll never forget.”
Striving for and achieving excellence is sometimes seen as an end in itself, but the members of the Ring of Fire of TVJA see their work as a ministry. Kaitlyn Fitch, a thoughtful seventh grader, says that one of the reasons that the Ring of Fire is so successful is that more than anything, they care about helping other people. “We aren’t doing this for ourselves or to get publicity. We just want to bring handbells to a level most people don’t yet know and to have our music reflect God and be a blessing to everyone who hears it.”
Richard Dower, GLEANER editor, writes from Vancouver, Washington.