The first time I ever saw Don Bell direct a choir was at Detroit First Church of the Nazarene, when the church presented a Christmas pageant called, “The Wondrous Story.” We traveled from Saginaw, Michigan to see it two years in a row.
The old church was familiar because we attended there when I was very young. The huge sanctuary was beautifully decorated. The singers and actors were incredible. The choir was accompanied by an orchestra of very talented musicians, all under Don’s direction.
After all these years, I can still picture it all, and I can hear Iona Baker singing, “My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord,” a duet she sang, playing Elizabeth, with the lady who acted the part of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Beautiful. I could never forget the closing song of the pageant, “The Hallelujah Chorus,” and the angels in Heaven joined in, I’m sure, as the sound lifted the roof on the old church just a bit higher.
Several years later, after our family moved from Saginaw to Lapeer, Michigan, I was invited to play my horn with a youth choir that practiced every Monday night in Flint, about thirty miles away. I went with some classmates, not knowing what to expect, but I already knew Don Bell was the director.
I was surprised to find The Alpha Singers was a huge choir of around a hundred teenagers, including an orchestra. The sound was absolutely amazing. I learned the choir was the second of two, the first being The Omega Singers, from Detroit. Monday quickly became my favorite day of the week.
What an indescribable thrill it was when both choirs performed together. I remember singing at the Michigan Sunday School Association convention at Temple Baptist Church in Detroit, with trumpeter Chuck Ohman, and speaker, former football player, Bill Glass. We performed many other concerts together.
Don Bell had an incredible gift. He inspired people to sing way beyond their own ability. It was impossible not to sing better when Don was directing. I so clearly remember, as we were singing, he would yell, “Every voice!” and the sound just exploded. He made me want to direct choirs like that.
God only knows the number of people influenced by Don, of which I am one. Without knowing it, he instilled a daring confidence in me that carried me through over thirty years of ministry in music. The only music training I’ve ever had was piano lessons, band class, and Don Bell.
When I was a senior in high school, I very uncharacteristically auditioned for a part in the school musical and got the lead, during which I met my wife, Mary. Next year we will celebrate our fiftieth anniversary.
The first time I ever directed a choir was during revival services at Olivet Nazarene College. I just decided I could do it.
I was a high school band director at a Christian school for two years. I was a choir director at four churches. In three towns where I was a pastor, I formed and directed community choirs. Mary and I did many camp meetings and concerts together. In all of it, I used what I learned by watching Don Bell.
Twenty-two or three years ago, I wrote to Don to thank him for the positive influence he had on my life. He wrote right back with kind words and thanks.
This morning I learned that Don passed away at the age of 90. I was surprised at the affect reading about his passing had on me as tears rolled down my cheeks. I thought about Don through the day and how thankful I am to have been around him for just a brief time. I realized it’s no wonder it touched my heart.
I don’t think Don’s ministry in music ended when he closed his eyes. I can see him now, standing before an incredibly huge choir, yelling, “Every voice!!” and the music of Heaven explodes.