Ican't remember when I first became aware of English handbells. But about eighteen years ago I determined that I wanted to add them to my teaching curriculum. And I have been gratified with the results. Playing handbells presents a beautiful visual and aural experience for the listener as well as being fun, challenging and musically satisfying for the performer. Handbell ringing as a musical art is still relatively new in the United States, so the audience is usually very interested and attentive during a performance.
Handbells are often found within the church. Some larger churches have several handbell choirs featuring children, youth, college age, young and middle-age adults, -and "seniors." However, many private schools and a growing number of public schools are now featuring handbells in their music curricula.
Factors to consider when deciding to introduce handbells into your music program . . .
A one-octave set of handbells (chromatic) costs around $2,000. It is often recommended that a two-octave minimum be purchased as a starter, although this is not a hard and fast rule. The more bells you have, the more students you can involve. The purchase price includes durable storage/carrying cases and a maintenance tool kit.
Handbell tables, foam pads and covers, music folders, gloves, polishing cloths and, of course, music, will all be additional costs. At a previous school, I used three 8-foot tables and my wife made red corduroy covers. However, commercial 3' x 3' handbell tables can be purchased, as well as table covers.
To finance such a venture will take some creative fund-raising, unless you know someone who wants to donate handbells to the school as a tax write-off (or just wants to give them because they feel generous, which happened to me!).
There are several brands of handbells made in the United States. The two main ones are Schulmerich and Malmark. Their addresses are at the end of this article.
Some people feel that handbell ringing is an exclusive activity because it involves a relatively small group of people. The size is up to you. You can use as many or as few people as works out best for your situation. My handbell choirs have anywhere from nine to fourteen ringers. You could also have as many choirs as you wish. I have had up to four choirs during one school year.
Certainly one of the major outlets for performing would be the musical ministry in your local churches. We have played just about every part of the regular service: prelude, offertory, "special" music, with hymns and as a hymn interlude, and postlude. Handbells go beautifully with children's singing voices as well as some instruments such as flute, clarinet, organ, trumpet, and others. But don't neglect the public relations possibilities within your community. There are numerous opportunities throughout the year to play at shopping malls (especially at the Christmas season), retirement centers and hospital/nursing homes, various civic functions, other churches and schools, and tours away from home.
There is no set outfit to wear; however, keep in mind that whatever is chosen must be free of anything metal or hard in the chest area (no pins, zippers, rivets, etc.) because that is the area where the handbell is damped. I have seen choirs in just regular "church"-type clothes, choir robes, matching outfits and even formal attire. Sometimes the sleeves of choir robes can be a distraction to players and listeners as a fairly full arm motion is involved when ringing handbells and the loose choir robe sleeves have a tendency to flap in the process. But if it doesn't bother your ringers, choir robes do have a nice look.
One year, my students wore white shirts and blouses, dark pants and skirts, lavender and pink cummerbunds. The girls wore lavender silk flowers at the neck on their blouses and the boys wore pink bow ties. Short formal gloves are worn to protect the delicate metal of the bells from the corrosive effects of oil and perspiration on the hands, and they give the playing a "classy" look.
Suggestions for getting started in handbells. . .
You can find out where they are going to be held by contacting the music director in one of your local churches where handbells are used; or write to the American Guild Of English Handbell Ringers (AGEHR), 601 West Riverview Avenue, Dayton, OH 45406; also you could ask to sit in on some handbell rehearsals. Better yet, join a handbell choir. You will learn a lot just by playing.
When I began teaching handbells, I got a tape from Chorister's Guild (an organization dedicated to children's choirs) which had information on how to form a handbell choir, ringing techniques, etc. I listened to it so often that I nearly had it memorized!
In choosing students there are several ways to go. Choose only experienced musicians: you will find that the hard part won't necessarily be reading the music as much as training the players in the ringing technique, at first. Just because people can read music and have been involved in music for some time doesn't mean that they are coordinated!
Another option is to choose people who have no music reading ability and train them. This is slower, but a fun way to develop music reading in students who have never had the opportunity or desire to learn to read musical notation. Initially, the students will have only one or two notes to read (and the corresponding bells to play). Then all they have to do is learn to ring whenever their note appears in the music. This is also a good way to teach the concept of counting.
At the junior-high level, I once had a mixture of experienced musicians and students who had never participated in any kind of school music (band, choir, lessons, etc.). It was wonderful to see musical comprehension dawning in the inexperienced players. And the "musicians" had opportunity to help the new players, adding worthwhile responsibilities to the learning situation. In this way, both groups were developing self-esteem and experiencing teamwork.
Ihave taught handbells to students as early as third grade; however, I limited the number of younger students. My players came mainly from grades 5-8 with the highest concentration in 6-8. There is now a product called "Choirchimes" or "Tonechimes" manufactured by Suzuki and Malmark. These are played like a handbell, but do not have the weight of a bell. They are rectangular tubes of metal with a movable clapper. The sound is delicate and the technique is about the same as ringing a handbell. The claim is that they are virtually indestructible, so they could be used with younger children as a good training experience for playing handbells when they are older, although the use of choirchimes along with handbells is a beautiful and unique touch in a performance.
The lower, larger bells are often played by boys or strong girls. Lately it has been discovered that there is danger in developing injuries - torn or sore muscles, tendonitis and "tennis" elbow - from lack of physical conditioning while playing the bells. There are exercises for ringers which will help them have a sensitivity to the music without incurring physical danger to themselves. The American Guild of English Handbell Ringers can supply you with ideas and specific exercises. Wrist braces are also available to protect the players from repetitive-motion injury.
Because bells are expensive, and the metal is of a high quality, it is important that the ringers be trained to treat the bells with the greatest respect. Encouraging them to be careful not to clang the bells together should be one of the director's "Commandments." There is danger that the bells will get nicks or impressions, or even develop hairline fractures or large cracks in their castings.
Another "commandment' should be no eating food or chewing gum while playing. Tiny droplets of saliva are ejected from the mouth that can land on the bells and begin a process of corrosion. Also remind your students to keep the bells from touching their faces or hair.
Those of you who live in humid climates may find your bell maintenance more of a job than those in drier climates. You may have to spend time frequently polishing and buffing your bells. It is probably a good idea to buff the bells with commercially prepared polishing cloths after every use.
In addition, it is absolutely essential that your players understand the dedication and commitment that participating in a handbell choir entails. If one of your players is missing, there is a "hole" and it throws the whole group out of kilter. You might consider teaching the same music to more than one choir so you would have a player to step in should someone be ill or away at your performance time. It would be advantageous also to have a trained musician as an alternate "just in case."
New music is constantly being composed specifically for handbells. And there are arrangements of music originally composed for other musical mediums. There is a great variety in types and styles, level of difficulty, and in range for the individual choir. Most music will state which size handbell choir the composition is intended for.
Although initially expensive, a set of handbells can provide many positive experiences for the ringers which make them a worthwhile educational tool and addition to the school or church musical offerings. The interaction, cooperation togetherness, and musical growth experienced by the ringers are important outcomes. And each player is equally important; the success of the performance depends on each individual playing his notes exactly where they should be.
Handbells are versatile. They can be used in combination with just about any other type of music ensemble, or just simply by themselves. Also several bell choirs can get together and have "ring-ins" or concerts. We participate yearly in a Conference-wide Adventist schools bell festival.
Of course, it is a joy to see students performing, too. The slogan of the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers sums it up beautifully: "Uniting People Through A Musical Art." The experiences that you and your students will have while working together to create beauty with your handbell choir will truly be happy memories in the making.
Terry Koch has a B.S. in music from Atlantic Union College and a M. Mus. from Andrews University. He is music teacher at Clara E. Rogers Elementary School in College Place, Washington, where he has taught since 1986 . He received the Zapara Excellence in Teaching Award in 1990 and became an MENC Nationally Registered Music Educator in 1991.
Schulmerich Carillons, Inc,Carillon Hill, Sellersville, PA 18960
White Chapel Bell Foundry LTD,43 White Chapel Road, London E1 1DY,England
Malmark Bells, Inc., Bell Crest Park, Plumsteadville, PA 18949
Suzuki Tone Chime,P.O. Box 261030,San Diego, CA 92126
This article is from the Autumn 1997 issue of Notes, a publication of the International Adventist Musicians Association