Elephants And Handbells

Ed1Dr. Ed Spann’s life has been saturated with music. His father, Lenzie, a Missouri Pacific Railroad employee, had an outstanding tenor voice and sang with the MoPac Quartet, promoting the company. Lenzie was also invited to be a founding member of the Stamps-Baxter Quartet in Dallas, but decided to stay with the railroad, supporting his family.

The Spann Family Quartet had their own radio program on KLRA in Little Rock, Arkansas and they would sing at various churches and functions in the area, including revival services for the popular evangelist Mordecai Ham. Lenzie would place young Ed and his twin brother, Fred, on the end of the piano bench and they would sing “Every Day with Jesus.” Ed says, “My father could never tell us apart, as twins. He would say, ‘Come here, son.’ Then we would flip a coin to see who would go. He had a rhyme that he always recited, ‘Ed and Fred fell out of the bed and broke their head on a piece of cornbread.’” This loving family was musically nurtured and the children grew up with a special love for church music.


Lenzie Spann would be involved in small church plants as the music minister. Ed says, “We often helped our father as he led music for a small mission congregation. We put the little pump organ and song books in the trunk and held a service in a storefront church.” Ed is pleased to know, “These missions are thriving congregations today.”

 Ed, Fred and Dee, their younger brother, have sung in quartets all their lives on the radio, revivals and special music events. Today, they continue as Ed sings with the Singing Men of North Central Texas and Fred and Dee sing with the Master Singers of Arkansas.

2345In 1963 Ed had his first full-time position as minister of music at Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. He became interested in handbells, and Pulaski Baptist became the third Baptist church in the state of Arkansas to begin using handbells. The handbell choir became a great success, and Ed would overcome many challenges to find music for handbells and increase proficiency and his continuing knowledge of handbell music and performance.

As a music missionary in Brazil in 1971, Ed helped establish a Department of Sacred Music at a Baptist seminary in Sao Paulo. Here he also utilized handbells. He returned to the states in 1975 and says, “I was further inspired to work with bells as a member of Westbury Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, where Hart Morris had a fabulous bell program.” Then Ed directed a women’s handbell choir at Garden Oaks Baptist Church in Houston for six years. Ed is now the Handbell Director at First Baptist Church in Duncanville, Texas.

Dr. Spann says, “These were important experiences for me, because in 1989 I was asked to come to Dallas Baptist University as the Dean of the College of Fine Arts. The first question I was asked by the university President Dr. Gary Cook is, ‘Would you be interested in starting a handbell program at DBU?’ He had been in that handbell choir as a 13-year-old, in Pulaski Heights Baptist Church.” Ed served fourteen years as dean and handbell director. This program was selected twice as the outstanding collegiate handbell program of the year by the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers. His handbell choir at DBU, the University Ringers, toured South Korea, Taiwan and Europe, as well as Texas and the southwestern United States.


Dr. Spann served several terms on the National Education Committee of the Handbell Musicians of America, had articles published in Overtones (the magazine for HMA), and served as clinician and judge for many handbell events. He led break-out sessions at national events and had some handbell numbers published.

So…I suppose you are wondering…what does all this have to do with elephants? I’m glad you asked!

In 2004, Dr. Gary Cook introduced Dr. Spann to Dr. Nirund, the President of Yonok College in Lampang, Thailand. He wanted help in starting a music department there. He had heard of Ed’s success with handbells and was hoping to arrange a handbell choir to perform for the King of Thailand’s birthday.

Dr. Spann thought it best to visit Yonok College and while there, was presented with a concert of seventeen elephants playing percussion instruments. Elephants there have been trained to play giant drums, huge xylophones tuned to the pentatonic scale as well as tuned bamboo instruments called angklungs. Ed then found out that what Dr. Nirund actually wanted was for Ed to figure out a way to teach elephants to play handbells!

elephantsEd says, “It would not be possible for elephants to play handbells because they are very delicate cast bronze instruments.” He determined that the best way to utilize elephants in a bell concert was to have them play their instruments along with music for handbells arranged that would be compatible with the elephants’ instruments. So Ed mentored the music professor at Yonok College on how to arrange bell music for this task.

As a result, in 2006, the students of Yonok College performed the world’s first handbell musical concert accompanied by elephants. They played a selection written by the King of Thailand for handbells called “Alexander’s Song” and a song composed by Professor Supod of Yonok College called “Elephants’ Lullaby.” The program has continued to grow and develop over the years.


So helpful was Dr. Ed Spann in the beginning of handbells in this manner, Yonok College has given him an open invitation to return to Thailand with hopes that he would now bring the handbell program to a higher level. And they still want him to include teaching the elephants the art of handbell ringing.

Come on Ed, give it a try. I think you could do it!