Partners in Life, Faith and Music
Recently retired, Felix and Martha Lynn
Thompson reflect on a life and musical partnership like no other
By J.R. Smith
from Overtones May/June 2006
G. Felix and Martha Lynn Thompson
In the handbell world, the names Felix and
Martha Lynn Thompson are synonymous with excellent music, hard
work, and an unfailing commitment to the art of ringing. People
certainly know the name Martha Lynn from her more than 250
published works and her dedicated service to the AGEHR over the
years. And many ringers who have attended area and national
festivals have had the privilege of ringing under Felix's more
than capable direction. But what many people do not know is that
their involvement with handbells has been anything but ordinary.
Over 40 years ago, the Thompsons began a life
together that would include the growth of a 20-choir musical
program, gain national renown, and touch literally thousands of
lives. Little did they know that what started as a part-time job
directing a children's choral program at a Methodist children's
home would turn into not only a career together but a musical
legacy at the St. James United Methodist Church in Little Rock,
After 33 years of service at the church as
directors of the entire music program, the Thompsons retired in
2002. Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting with them to talk
about their long and successful partnership.
Can you tell us how you came to work in the music field
We both went to the same college, Henderson State University
here in Arkansas, we both taught junior high school choral
music, and we were both involved in church music. He was
teaching in Little Rock, and I was teaching in North Little
Rock. He had just gone to St. Paul United Methodist Church as
choir director; the church was looking for an organist; I was
looking for an organist's job, and the church hired me. That was
that time, my salary with the school system was $2,800. Hers
wasn't much more. To supplement our salaries, both of us also
taught piano lessons. The father of one of my junior high
students was the superintendent at the Methodist Children's Home
in Little Rock, and in 1962, he asked us to begin a choir
program for the children and youth who lived at the Home.
At the start, we did only the choral program at the Home. The
superintendent believed that every child should be part of a
musical activity so he sent them to choir not long after they
were able to walk! Everyone came at the same time--toddlers to
teenagers--and we were supposed to teach them to sing. And then
he volunteered us to do a television program!
Felix and Martha Lynn's first handbell program, the
Elizabeth Ann Terry Memorial Handbell
Choir of the Methodist Children's Home
FELIX: We had
probably had no more than three or four rehearsals when he asked
us if we would like the choir to be on television every Sunday
at 7:00 in the morning for a month.
After doing the television programs, the superintendent thought
it would be a good idea to take the choir to sing at Methodist
churches throughout Arkansas. Although we were smart enough to
realize it, this was part of his fund-raising plan.
traveled to some Methodist church nearly every Sunday, usually
going in a rickety old school bus!
The children and youth sang, did choral readings, scripture
readings, and lead the entire worship service.
OT: When did
handbells come into the picture?
That happened in 1965 or '66. A Methodist minister's daughter
died in a helicopter accident, and there were so many memorials
gifts given to the Children's Home that the minister suggested
buying something for the music department. When we said,
"We hear that handbells are the coming thing," the
superintendent said, "Order a set and tell them I want them
here in three weeks." So we ordered a set, and they were
here in about three weeks! Then the superintendent said, "I
want you to play them in church soon." Soon meant in about
two weeks! These children and youth didn't know anything about
music, and we didn't know anything about handbells and we didn't
have a clue as to how we were going to put this bell choir
anxious to hear how you tackled that.
In those days, there was very little published bell music, but
reproducible music was included in Overtones. Basically
these were hymn arrangements done by Guild members. It was very
simple--basically two octaves or less, but it wasn't easy enough
for our beginning ringers.
We started without help from anyone. The book that came with our
bell set said "you needed this many ringers," and the
superintendent said, "you're going to have this many,"
which was more--so we arbitrarily made some decisions, not
knowing if they were right or wrong. Our first idea was,
"We'll color-code the music for them. Each note will be a
different color." We started by putting simple one-line
melodies on charts and making each note a different color. Well,
we ran out of colors before we ran out of notes and no one could
see yellow! This eventually developed into our system of marking
and color-coding music.
OT: How did
things go then?
Things went well. We organized two choirs, one for children and
one for youth. In 1967 we took the youth to the National
Festival in Dallas. They were still playing very simple music,
but they played it well. And they looked nice--they were all
outfitted in blazers. Years later people would say, "I
remember your ringers and how nice they looked." By the
way, when we went to that first festival, the massed ringing
music was given to us at registration!
FELIX: At the
Festival, someone from another choir came up to us and said,
"You really play well, but you need to learn to damp."
Musicians from the Thompsons' music program at St.
James United Methodist Church
on Easter Sunday in 2000.
(Laughs)--and no one had ever said that to us.
was one of the first constructive things we were told, so we
We took our ringers to a festival every year after that.
the time we directed the music program at the Children's Home,
we traveled over 32,000 miles within Arkansas, leading worship
in many churches.
This was good for them because they stayed in homes of church
members and they had to learn how to behave (Felix laughs) and
how to write a proper thank-you note. They were learning more
than just music.
the years people have said to us, "I heard your children
from the Methodist Children's Home on television at a time when
I was very sick. I can't tell you what it meant to have those
children come into my home on Sunday morning." Also, I
never will forget what one of the children's teachers told me.
He was one of her best students. After he gave his oral book
report, she asked him, "How come you always do so well when
you give your oral book reports? Why aren't you nervous?"
His answer was, "I get up in front of hundreds of people
every Sunday and play the bells, so why should I be scared of
(the other kids)?" These young people learned so much more
than music--things that they are now teaching their own
children. We still keep in contact with many of them through
you're directing the music program at the Methodist Children's
Home and developing handbell choirs there as well. Where do your
jobs at St. James come in?
St. James was organized and started meeting at the Methodist
Children's Home in 1968. The superintendent of the Home
volunteered us to do the music at the church when we weren't
traveling with the Home choirs and bell choirs. The church met
at the Children's Home for about a year and was still meeting
there when it was chartered in April of '69. We were doing the
music for St. James, although we were still employed by the
Children's Home. When the church moved into its new building, we
were asked to become the first music directors. We saw this as
an opportunity to build a program from the ground up. We
officially became St. James' Music Director and Organist in
October of 1970, and we continued to do the Children's Home work
were in the right place at the right time. The Lord knew what he
was doing in leading us into this area. In fact, we had applied
at a large church here in town, and to this day we haven't been
told whether or not we got the job. I wonder what would have
happened if we had gotten that job! The Lord was leading us to
St. James from the very start.
in the handbell world, the names Felix and Martha Lynn Thompson
are synonymous with the instrument. But your jobs at St. James
pretty much entailed the entire music program, correct?
Yes, we did the entire music program. He did the adult choirs, I
was the organist, and jointly we did the children's and youth
choirs and the bell choirs. The handbell choirs were about a
third of what we did.
don't often find combinations like this in churches any
longer--one or two people directing all the choirs.
All these choirs were equally important parts of the Music
Ministry, but the thing that made bell choirs so important at
St. James was the effect they had on the lives of the ringers
and what they could do to draw the people into the church and to
get them involved in ministry. Many people came into St. James
through the Music Ministry door--through the bell program.
Lynn, you were once quoted as saying, "Any church that
really supports a handbell program has at its disposal another
tool for reaching its congregation at all age levels." How
do you see handbells as an important part in reaching all age
levels maybe as opposed to something else?
Because it's a small group there are one-on-one relationships.
You have to work to build relationships, and it's harder to do
when you have lots of people in the choir. The members of the
bell choir also have to help make it work. The first youth bell
choir at St. James succeeded because one girl got off the school
bus at the church and said to her friends, "Here's where we
get off because we're going to bell choir today," and she
brought some of her friends with her. Those friends got involved
in the bells, and then their families joined the church. Many
times it's the connection with the bell choir or the music
program that keeps them involved in the church--it's a place
where they feel safe. When they walk in the door, they know
there are expectations, they know what the rules are, they know
the rules are not going to change--and they know that it's a
safe place. There literally have been youth who have come inside
because something unhealthy was going on outside, and they knew
they could come in and be safe. The ringers also become part of
a team and they don't want to let the team down. In time, you
begin to build a tradition. The ones who make the most
responsible ringers today are the ones who grew up in the
program and know what the rules are.
have always had high expectations of our ringers. From the
smallest ones to the largest ones, they all know that they are
expected to be at bell choir rehearsal, and if they're not going
to be there, we need to know in advance. We didn't have many
absentees because the ringers knew that they were an important
part of a team. I think that so often we don't expect enough
from our ringers. We always had one piece of music in the
folders that was a little harder than we thought they could do,
but it was our challenge piece. We tried to keep everybody busy,
and this was possible because Martha Lynn is so good at
assigning bells. A bass ringer may also play a very small bell.
This may be because that's the best place to assign the bell for
that piece or it may be to keep the ringer busy and involved
until the end of the piece. Ringers who aren't busy sometimes
pester their neighbors!
OT: How is it
that you eventually became such movers in the handbell world?
not sure that we ever were movers and shakers, but things really
began to take off for our bell choirs when Martha Lynn began
writing for them. There still wasn't a lot of published music,
and one of our ringers said she was tired of going to festivals
and hearing the same music over and over. "Why can't Mrs.
Thompson write something for us?" That summer we taught at
a Baptist choir camp, and the organist played a neat little
piece of music to open the camp. It was John Bull's "Rondo
in G." Instantly we thought that would be a great number on
But that wasn't the first one. Actually "Parade of the
Wooden Soldiers" was the arrangement that got it all
started. There is a funny story about that one. The original
version of "Parade" was published by another
publisher, but not knowing any better at the time, I sent my
arrangement of it to the Guild. They rejected it--but then
turned around and programmed it as a National Festival massed
ringing piece! I was paid a flat price of $50 for the
arrangement, never received any royalties, and have no idea how
many copies it's sold.
I never write a piece because I want it to be published. If a
piece is published, that's "a plus." I write it
because we need a piece for a particular choir or I find
something that I think would make a nice arrangement for bells.
This is not something I do to make money. It's something I do to
share with others.
OT: Are there
any particular pieces or arrangements that have stood out as
your favorites over the years?
"Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" is of my favorites
because it was an early one. There are a couple of interesting
stories--one of them about a setting I did of the hymn,
"Thy Holy Wings." I wanted to use a narrator so the
text could be heard along with the music, but the translation in
the hymnals is copyrighted. At the time, some friends had a
Swedish exchange student, and they put me in contact with the
student's father, who translated the text from the original
Swedish for me. He and I worked on it together so that it made
good sense in American English and so that it the translation
could be sung to the hymn tune. He wanted no recognition or
payment--he gave me permission to use it in any way I wanted. Of
course, on the published music, he is given credit for the
Another arrangement that has an interesting background came
about because we always watch the Vienna Philharmonic's New
Years concert. One year they played a piece called the "Sperl
Galop." It was the only piece on the entire program that
was not subtitled. I didn't know how to spell Sperl. I couldn't
find it anywhere, or so I thought. I just hadn't done my
homework very well, but I thought, "It's only going to cost
me the price of an airmail stamp. I'm going to write to the
Vienna Philharmonic." That year, Loren Mazel was the guest
conductor. I knew that, since he was American, he would
understand my letter written in English, so I wrote and asked if
he could tell me where I might find the music. Of course, I
thought I would never hear from him or anyone else. About a
month later, I got a package from Vienna. It was from the
librarian of the Philharmonic, and inside was the entire
orchestral score of "The Sperl Galop," sent "with
the compliments of the Vienna Philharmonic."
back to your career and your partnership at St. James. How has
doing this all of your lives as a team been different than if
you had taken each of your careers down individual paths?
I don't think either one of us would have been as happy or as
effective in our work if we had gone separate ways. In 2002-03
when he was sick and in the hospital several times, I realized
then that I didn't enjoy working with somebody else as much as I
enjoyed working with him. It wasn't that I didn't like working
with other directors, but we have been a team most of our
working lives. I think it's worked very well.
OT: What are
you doing now that you're retired? Are you enjoying it?
He still directs the Alumni Ringers as a volunteer and I have
two adult bell choirs. Last spring we started a six-ringer group
basically to try out some things that somebody had asked me to
write using the 12-bell concept. It's a different way of
thinking and writing, but it's lots of fun. So--I'm still doing
quite a bit of writing and I also do the engraving for most of
my published pieces. Recently I've also been doing some
free-lance engraving work for publishers, too.
don't miss the stress and strain--or the staff meetings --but I
do miss the association of the people we've worked with for so
long. That's probably the biggest void and the most difficult
thing about retirement. I especially miss the children and
youth, but it's nice to be able to do the things we want to do
at church, then walk out the door and leave the worries to
Martha Lynn, right, with longtime handbell friends
Betty Garee, center, and Fran Callahan.
back on such a long and successful career, how close is this to
where you saw yourselves going as college students.
Not many bell choirs existed when we finished college, so we
couldn't have known that they would become such an important
part of our lives. Other than that, I believe I did what I
started out to do. I'm not a concert organist and I'm not a
recitalist. I'm a church organist and that's what I've enjoyed
doing since I was in high school. I prefer doing
behind-the-scenes work and letting someone else be in the
spotlight as the up-front person.
my second year in college I decided to change from working on a
performance degree in music to earning a music education degree
with emphasis in secondary school choral music. After
graduation, I taught junior high school choral music for seven
years, and during that time, for three summers I worked in a
church as a youth director and music director. Even though I
enjoyed teaching school, these summer jobs made me realize that
I wanted to go into full-time church music work. It's a decision
I've never regretted. Having the privilege to help organize a
brand new church, to begin the St. James Music Ministry, to give
it leadership, and to help it grow for 33 years was a
once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. After retiring in 2002, being
allowed to continue directing the Alumni Ringers as a volunteer
is an added bonus!