By MAGGIE GEBHARDT

mgebhardt@dailynews.net

The familiar sound of bells has been setting the Christmas tone and inspiring holiday spirit for years. The gentle chimes were heard echoing through the sanctuary at First United Methodist Church of Hays this week.

Members of the church's bell choir joined Tuesday evening to rehearse for their Christmas performances.

Led by the instruction of bell choir director Jalynn Notle, Hays, the choir rehearses year round. There are approximately 15 members. Practice typically takes place once a week, so the group is able to perform at least one time during the month in front of the congregation.

"I've played bells since 1976," Nolte said. "Everywhere I have lived there has been a bell choir, so I have either directed or participated."

When Notle moved to Hays, she joined the First United Methodist choir. Roughly five years ago, she applied for the open position of director.

"I've always had music in my life," she said. "I just love the sound of bells."

Unlike other various choirs, movement and visual effects enhance the experience of observing a bell choir.

"One of the really neat aspects is what you see as we are playing," said Marilyn Davidson, church member and bell choir member.

"I tell them that it's visual and oral," Nolte said. "When we play, it really is a ministry to be able to see it."

During performances, the choir members are dressed in all black, including the gloves that accent the shiny gold bells in each hand. As bells are played, members lift them into the air to increase sound and lower them to their bodies to silent notes.

Time, hard work and dedication goes into preparing for performances, the group said.

"We have to work on specific skills separately, and after we have rehearsed, I find music that helps them work that skill," the director said.

"It's fun to come to practice. I really enjoy it," said Marla Homburg, one of the newest members of the choir.

Homburg dedicates herself in ways that impress the other members. She does not read music, so she plays strictly based on the sounds around her, accompanied by the visual direction of Nolte.

"She loves the challenge," Nolte said of Homburg.

"I don't think you're ever too old to learn," Homburg said.

The experience of participating in a bell choir has unique differences that stand apart from playing other musical instruments, the members said. Teamwork plays a vital role.

"Everyone has individual parts, and they're in charge of two notes," the director said. "The unique part is that even though you're in charge of your own notes, you have to play like one instrument."

Members must listen to one another so they know when to chime in with their individual notes, she said.

"Even though everyone is counting in their head, listening is crucial."

"If you're next to someone who doesn't get their note in, it will throw everything off," said Hannah Barrett, church member and bell choir member. "Working together is key."

With all hard work, though, comes enjoyment, satisfaction and pride.

"It's so much fun to come to choir practice," Nolte said. "We laugh a lot and really enjoy the time together."

Overall, the choir members agree the best part of their involvement is the benefits they receive in their worship experience.

"Music is such an important part of worship," Barrett said. "I feel like if I'm not participating, I won't get the full benefit."

"I love it because of the fellowship we have," the director said. "It's all part of the total experience."

Individuals in the community interested in joining the First United Methodist Church bell choir should contact the church, the director said.