Author’s Note: Although I’ve been meaning to write a post on this subject for a while now, a letter from an Australian pen pal asking about handbells gave me the push I needed to get this written. Thanks Wendy!
For more info about handbell history and performance visit Handbell Musicians of America (formerly the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers), Schulmerich Bells, and Malmark Bells.
For a site dedicated to the closest thing to a professional handbell choir visit the Raleigh Ringers site.
I have been a musician my whole life. When I was six, I started piano lessons which eventually led me to flute lessons when I was twelve. In high school, I was in marching band and saved up money to buy a piccolo so I’d at least stand a chance of being heard on the field; after collegiate marching band, concert band, flute choir and a semester of university choir, I pretty much thought my days as a musician were over. I’d have never studied music because a) it would have sucked the fun out of it for me and b) I’d have been a performance major, not an education one and there are very few jobs and even less money involved in being a professional flautist. Little did I know how wrong I was about the role music would play in my life. When Bill and I were married, the first thing we did was find a church to join, and once we did, I knew I didn’t want to be a passive congregant. I had always enjoyed listening to the handbell music in the church I grew up in, so I joined the handbell choir at Colonial Park United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. Dave Gaston was the director and after a few shaky rehearsals, I got my bearings and was on my way to becoming a handbell musician.
Handbells were invented as a way for change ringers to practice their craft without having to use the bells in the cathedral towers, which is why, to this day, handbells are primarily a form of sacred music. Handbells are brass except for the second and third bass octaves, which are made of aluminum (otherwise they’d be too heavy to lift). A full complement of bells spans five octaves (61 bells) and a set can range in price from $2800 to over $20,000 depending on how many octaves you buy. There are also chimes which resemble disassembled xylophone bars with clappers. Chimes are primarily used to teach children proper technique before they become handbell musicians, but they also have a tone similar to that of a vibraphone and can be used as an embellishment to a regular bell piece.
There is a technique to ringing which may not always be obvious if the entire choir isn’t doing the same thing. The way Dave taught me to ring is to move the bells from their resting place at my collarbone in a downward U shaped arc out and away from my body. It’s difficult to explain without a visual, but if you’re just flicking your wrists to ring your bells it is called “throwing the bells” and isn’t considered good technique. I know I sound snobbish, and I don’t mean to, but every musical instrument has its own technique (even the triangle) and this is the way I was taught. Dave also taught me that it’s perfectly acceptable to move around when you play, and I find it phsyically impossible to stand still while I play. Gloves are worn to prevent the oils on your skin from changing the tone and styrofoam pads are under the tablecloths to prevent any damage to the bells during quick changes or techniques that require touching the bell to the table.Many people think that you have to read music in order to play handbells but I disagree. What you really need is a sense of rhythm in order to succeed as a ringer.I don’t know how well it shows up in the photo, but the choir director circles the notes you play, so you don’t have to know what your note looks like to play it. It helps to have a musical background, but it isn’t required.
The most challenging part of playing handbells is that everyone is assigned specific notes. It’s not like a concert band setting where there may be three or four instruments on the same part; in ringing, each musician has their own part, so it’s imperative to focus during rehearsal. If you miss an entrance or ring the wrong bell, it can throw the whole choir off. Once I hear how my part fits with the other ringers, I can usually just play by ear and by listening to everyone else, but there are times that doesn’t work. Sometimes the parts are so complex or move so quickly that you have to block everyone else out and just count and play your bells when you’re supposed to. Changing bells during a piece is quite commonplace but can be frustrating when you’re first learning a piece. Once you figure out the pattern to picking them up and putting down, it gives you a real sense of accomplishment. Being a member of a bell choir is a challenge that I love, and one that I’m glad I decided to undertake all those years ago. It has enriched my life, and it’s not’s something everyone knows about, so it gives me a chance to teach people about sacred music. After our performance this morning, our minister said that we make it look easy. That is the highest compliment anyone can give a bell choir because it truly is a group undertaking that requires a lot of concentration and effort to execute. Nietsche said “without music life would be a mistake” and I agree with him. Music is and always has been an important part of my life. Playing in church brings me closer to God and helps me bring His peace and love to my friends. What could be better than that?