Image via Schulmerich Handbells
I’m in the handbell choir at my church and our “season” just started with a technique clinic on Saturday. I realized that probably a lot of people have never heard handbell music and don’t know what it’s all about! I’ve literally grown up with handbells… my mom took me to practice with her when I was an infant. I think I was pretty much destined to play when I was older.
As you can see from the picture above, handbells come in all sizes. Each bell corresponds to a note. The higher the note, the smaller the bell. They’re typically made of brass, but the really big bass bells – which we don’t have – are made of aluminum because they’re so big you couldn’t lift them if they were made of brass. We have a five octave choir, which is on the larger end for a church choir. I play the very highest treble bells – the itty-bitty ones! My whole hand fits around the brass part, whereas I can barely pick up our largest bass bells.
You may think that bells can just be rung. Wrong! There are so many crazy techniques to produce different types of sounds, and even some fun ways to ring the high-bells. I play with a technique called four-in-hand. I have two bells in each hand – four different notes. Because handbells clappers can only swing one direction the bells are turned in opposite directions. I turn my hand a different way to ring each note. Some people play six-in-hand but I’m not sure how. I’d really love to learn!
At the bell clinic on Saturday, we learned a new technique we’ll be using this year. It is incredible. It’s called the singing bell technique and the sound it makes is so ethereal. I’m sure it’s easier explained by seeing and hearing it, so watch:
Oh my goodness, it is so cool! We actually don’t hit it to start the sound. You can just begin circling the bell rim with the dowel and it “sings” on its own. It doesn’t really work with the highest bells, so I won’t get to do it in any of our pieces but I got to try it out. If you have never heard bell music – or even if you have – please watch this video. It’s such a cool piece!
Handbell music is so beautiful. It’s just such a lovely experience for me. It’s really a great expression of the body of Christ. We each have charge of different bells… I play 4-in-hand with the high bells and my other treble-bell comrades often shelley ring (two in each hand – the same notes, octave apart – facing the same direction, played together). The bass bells are huge and heavy, quite a cool feat to watch and require strength and lots of coordination (my mom is awesome; our bass lady actually can’t lift them so she uses a mallet). The middle bells are neither small enough to play 4-in-hand nor huge, but they are the bulk of the melody and often have crazy handwork, switching sharps and flats. And all together, following our director, we can make a beautiful song of praise. Even without one person, it’s evident that there is something missing. If we don’t keep our eyes on the director, we do not play completely together. If one person picks up the wrong bell on a chord, you can tell. Isn’t it that way with the body of Christ?