“I want to play in the Bell Choir too”
The Mary Anne Story of Arbecy
By Pam Simon
Little Mary Anne walked into the cottage’s music room with the help of her caregiver, Natalie. Mary’s daily routine included therapy for autism, learning braille, recreation & adaptive skills and music therapy for the blind. Today was Mary Anne’s favorite day, because Jerry Simon’s Boys’ Bell Choir was rehearsing at her cottage. She knew that soon, the entire room would be filled with cheering students who attended the Pinecrest State School in Pineville, Louisiana. Natalie assisted Mary Anne in locating her favorite seat in the audience…. second row right in the seventh chair from the middle. After Natalie had made sure Mary Anne was okay, she then went to the back of the room to wait until the music activity had concluded. You see, Mary Anne lived in a cottage for special children with visual disabilities.
Mary Anne sat quietly, knowing soon the bell choir members would arrive for rehearsal. One by one, each musician would enter the room amid cheers and screams from the mostly female audience. It almost sounded like a “Beatles Concert” … or maybe the “Rolling Stones”. Mr. Jerry’s bell choir was a “Boys Bell Choir” with youth ranging in ages 8 to 15 years old. The atmosphere confirmed for each musician that they were indeed “ROCK STARS”!!! Each boy greeted each other with “High 5’s” as they leaped into the air and landed with a “Rock Star Slide” across the stage floor (imitating Elvis Presley). As the audience screamed and applauded their arrival, it almost sounded like the concert has just finished …. “And the audience were demanding an ENCORE”.
Mary Anne loved the excitement, cheers, and screams of the audience and appreciated the “feeling of belonging” with the audience. She loved to listen to them play the bells. Hearing the bells was like the listening to fairy wings as they fluttered through the air. Well, this is what Mary Anne imagined in her mind; Especially, since she was born blind. Mary Anne had never seen any of the things that other kids had seen of this world; however, her imagination had vividly painted the world she imagined in her mind. Just because she could not see the blue sky, trees, flowers, birds or even peoples’ faces….. she saw everything through her own imagination. Also, she used her hands to see people and objects in her surroundings. Just like when she listened to the bells and imagined what each bell looked like; She felt the vibrations from each bell and identified each choir member based on the bell sound and vibrations from the bell. Her skin trembled with chord and melody sounds while the audience fell silent and then screamed. Mary Anne’s heart rate and breathing seemed to synchronize with the music as she rocked back and forth. That’s why every time the bell choir practiced, Mary Anne was the 1st fan to show-up and find her favorite seat. She felt that she had already reserved a seat in the VIP section.
Before long she could hear the boys coming into the building. She could hear them running across the floor laughing, talking, singing and dancing. The Boy’s Bell Choir may have been only children from the local cottages on the Pinecrest campus; however, they children believed they were secretly FAMOUS in the outside world. The excitement of the cheers and applauds excited the entire audience.
All of a sudden, she heard Mr. Jerry’s voice: “INTRODUCING, THE FABULOUS BOY’s BELL CHOIR”. He had such a strong voice. It sounded like one of the big bells played by the Bell Choir. Mr. Jerry said, “Let’s settle down and get in our seats so that we can get started”.
Everyone got quiet for about five seconds…. And all of the sudden, the children started cheering & screaming again…. And the Boys Bell Choir starting dancing and sliding across the floor (like Elvis) which prompted the audience to scream and cheer even louder. After a few renditions of cheering & dancing, finally Mr. Jerry started the rehearsal.
The bell sounds gently floated around the room as the bell choir warmed up. The room filled with such wonderful sounds which slowly calmed the screaming fans to the “peace & quiet” that Mr. Jerry needed to start his Boys' Bell Choir Rehearsal. The music filled Mary Anne with joy and happiness. Sometimes it made her want to cry…. for the sheer joy that it made her feel deep inside. It was hard to describe. Mary Anne described it as a picture of herself that only she could see.
Mr. Jerry understood Mary Annes's inner vision and musical picture of herself. He had lived and performed in New Orleans for many years and knew how to transport the audience to a crescendo and slowly release the joy and cheers to a standing ovation. Mr. Jerry had always described his musical experience on stage in a similar way that Mary Anne described for herself. During Mary Anne’s favorite songs, she rocked back and forth in her seat. Sometimes, she tapped her feet, moved back and forth, and clapped her hands to the beat of the music. The bell choir members practiced many songs for their upcoming concerts in the local area.
When the Bell Choir played Mary Anne’s favorite song, “Come Saturday Morning”. She was filled with such joy and emotion that she stood quietly and raised her arms toward the sky. That song always made her feel like she was riding in a car with the windows rolled down, feeling the cool air brushing across her face. Smelling the “fresh cut grass” and breathing in the sweet scents of the flowers.
After a while, Mr. Jerry told everyone that they all played really well and that he was very proud of them. Then he would always say, “Give yourselves a round of applause.” Which meant to clap for yourself!!! Then, he told them it was time to go. Mary Anne could hear all the high five’s, good byes, and bells being packed away. She heard the running of feet and more laughing as the children headed out of the room.
Mary Anne sat there for a few minutes more. She loved listening to the bell choir. What she wanted most of all was to play in the Bell Choir. She wanted that most of all. She decided that today, she would ask Mr. Jerry to hear her request.
Mary Anne turned her head slightly and could hear Natalie talking to Miss Betty in the back of the room. Now was her chance! She stood up; with her cane made her way toward where Mr. Jerry was standing. She could hear him putting the bells away.
When she was close enough to Mr. Jerry, she reached out her arms and called out his name, “Mr. Jerry, Mr. Jerry”. Mary Anne waited, she could hear him coming closer to her.
“Hello Mary Anne”, said Mr. Jerry. “Did you enjoy the Bell Choir practice?”
Mary Anne smiled. “Oh yes, Mr. Jerry…. I enjoyed it very much. The bells sounded so beautiful”.
“I am glad to hear that, Mary Anne.” He said, “You are our biggest fan. Now what can I do for you?”
Mary Anne cleared her voice. She nervously started rocking back and forth and said,
“Mr. Jerry, I want…. I want…… I want to be in the bell choir, I want to play bells too”!!! Please Mr. Jerry… I’ll be good Mr. Jerry…. Really I’ll be a good bell choir member. I promise Mr. Jerry… I promise”.
Mary Anne took a deep breath. She felt so proud of herself for finally asking for what she so desperately wanted. She wanted to be a member of the bell choir. Mr. Jerry took Mary Anne’s hand and helped her to sit down. And then slowly, he took a deep breath. It was a moment before he spoke:
“Oh, Mary Anne, I am so glad that you want to be in the bell choir, but first I must explain something…. Our bell choir uses musical hand signs to read the bell choir music we perform. The bell choir member read their notes and play their bells when I do the hand signs…… I am so sorry that you cannot see my hand signs because you are blind. I am so sorry Mary Anne.”
Mary Anne’s heart fell. Her world turned upside down. She wanted to be in the Bell Choir more than anything in the whole wide world. She felt very unhappy and frustrated….and angry. All the joy and excitement she felt during bell choir rehearsal quickly disappeared!!! It was replaced with anger, disappointment and frustration. At this moment……RIGHT NOW…. MARY ANNE HATED BEING BLIND!!! It was not fair. It was not fair…. It Just Was Not Fair. Mary Anne sat there in anguish as tears rolled down her face. All of the sudden, Mary Anne jumped up and started screaming and stumping her feet. Then, she fell to the floor and began banging her head against the floor. She could hear Natalie, running toward her and shouting,
“Mary Anne, no!!!” “No, Mary Anne...Please STOP!!!”
Natalie sprang to Mary Anne’s side, as she lay on the floor with head injuries and blood spattered on the floor. Natalie laid on the floor next to Mary Anne and put her arms around her. Natalie tried to calm Mary Anne down. Speaking very softly, Natalie said, “It’s OK Mary Anne…. It’s OK Mary Anne…. Mr. Jerry is here, and I am here with you. We will always be here with you. You know that, Mary Anne, as she wiped the tears from Mary Anne’s eyes.”
Mary Anne slowly stood up and paused, taking some time to recover from her devastation. After a while, she had completely exhausted all of her energy and pain… and there was no more anger left in her. Natalie helped Mary Anne across the room and into a seat. As Natalie continued to wiped Mary Anne’s tears away, Mr. Jerry came over kneeled near Mary Anne. He took both of her hands into his hands… and hesitating briefly, he placed her hands onto his face.
Mary Anne felt Mr. Jerry’s tears, slowly dripping down his face as he spoke very softly, “Mary Anne, Mary Anne…. you are so, so very important to me”.
Then in a slow, quiet voice he said,
“Mary Anne, I am really sorry you are hurt and upset that you can’t be in the Bell Choir right now. If I could make it possible…. You know that I would. I need your help right now Mary Anne…. I want to make a big promise to you. One day I will create a Bell Choir for children like you, who are blind".
"They will learn to read and perform music in a very new and special way" said Mr. Jerry. " I will find a way, Mary Anne. One day, blind children will read and perform music because of you, Mary Anne". He repeated, "It will happen because of you, Mary Anne, and your love for music”.
Mr. Jerry paused for a moment and said, “I promise this to you, Mary Anne….. I will not rest until I keep this promise to you.” With tears rolling down his face, Mr. Jerry walked toward the door of the empty room where Natalie and MaryAnn sat quietly. He looked back to Mary Anne and said, “Do you believe me Mary Anne?” She shook her head with a slow, up and down motion and said, “Yes, Mr. Jerry”. “I believe you”. Mary Anne knew he would find a way to include her into the Bell Choir. She just knew it in her heart that Mr. Jerry would make it happen.
Mr. Jerry’s promise was made in 1977 when he completed his post graduate Music Therapy Internship. In 1978, Mr. Jerry started graduate school at Loyola University of New Orleans. He decided to combine his promise to Mary Anne with his requirement to complete his Master Thesis on Arbecy. Mr. Jerry kept his promise to Mary Anne thirty-three years later. In 2009, Mr. Jerry completed his first successful prototype of Arbecy and successfully patented his invention.
With his invention, Mr. Jerry made it possible for children who are blind, deaf-blind and other populations to read the music through tactile stimulation. Mr. Jerry never imagined that, “Music Hand-signs” he used in the Boys' Bell Choir in 1977 would one day become the Music Technology that changes Music and Dance forever. From the mid-twentieth century discovery of “Visual Hand signs of Music Notes” by Zoltan Kodaly, to “Tactile Music Note Codes” sent through wireless technology.
Today, Mr. Jerry continues his search for Mary Anne. However, during the early 1980’s, large residential institutions for specially challenged children were “De-populated” (reduced in size) due to new federal laws. After receiving his patent in 2009, Mr. Jerry traveled around the country sharing his invention with the blind, the deaf, the deaf-blind, the autistic, and many other developmentally challenged populations.
Mr. Jerry had kept his promise to Mary Anne even though he has never seen her again. After searching for many years, and new privacy laws, it has become impossible to find Mary Anne. Now all the Mary Anne’s in the world will be able to play music. This is Mary Anne’s legacy, “How one little girl, who wanted to play in the Bell Choir, changed the lives of so many people in this world.
– inspired in 1977 by a little girl named Mary Anne