Earlier this summer, I had the chance to attend my first handbell conference. The Area 1 (because we can) festival was held at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Four days of rehearsals, courses, and mini concerts, culminating in a huge concert at the end of the festival.
Over 150 octaves of bells were participating, and even more were donated to be used during the classes. There were so many of us we had to rehearse in a hockey rink. Do you know the last time I was in a hockey rink? I was at a hockey game! I know. I was surprised, too.
There were five of us from the Sparta UMC Bell Choir (six, including our orphan). I also got to catch up with the director of the bell choir I occasionally rang with in Maine, Amy Rollins. Did I say how good the food was? The food was really good. Oh, the classes were fun, too. Most of the courses I took allowed me to challenge myself. My first class was supposed to be a reading session, but only five people showed up. Ian and I had to make up for it by ringing over an octave of bells just between the two of us; I may not be weaving at the speed of sound just yet, but I’m definitely weaving. I think everyone learned something, whether they were experienced ringers or newcomers. And Ian even got to catch a few naps.
In any case, I heard a lot of questions from the less experienced ringers in some of the courses I took, and I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to share the things I learned, either from three years of ringing with the Westminster Concert Bell Choir under direction of Kathy Ebling Shaw, the handbell conference, or just things that I know because I have been a solo artist, ensemble musician and choral singer of some shape for most of my life. I’ve compiled some of them below, which will hopefully give some insight into ringing like a pro.
Pro tips for Pro bell ringing!
1. Watch the conductor
I want to believe this goes without saying. Memorize your music as soon as possible, not so that you can play the entire thing without looking at the music, but so that when you need to look away to follow your director at those really important moments (the beginning, for initial tempo; any place with tempo changes or alterations, such as rit. or accel.; fermatas; the end; other places where they tell you to watch and you draw the googly eyes in your score, etc.), you do not get lost. This can be very difficult for those of you who use those score binder lifter-upper things. The music is so close to your face, I know. But look at your director. They are there for a reason.
Side note: memorizing your music is a good idea, even if you will be able to look at your score. Being that familiar with the music and your part will more comfortable and you’ll be able to enjoy yourself. Maybe even smile.
Unless there is an LV indicated, not damping is not an option. Your extraneous notes will muddle the harmonies, interrupt the melody, and make the music sound sloppy. Do not be that guy. Don’t be sloppy. Damp your bells when they are not supposed to be ringing.
3. Damp the WHOLE bell.
Sound emits from the entire body of the bell, not just the lip. If you damp just the lip of the bell, not all of the harmonics will damp. An older woman in one of our classes expressed discomfort at this idea, but let me be clear: You do not need to beat yourself with the bell. If damping causes you pain, you are getting a little too enthusiastic.
Sometimes I’ll see people damping bells (or chimes) by placing only the lip of the bell (or chime) on their chest. Two problems with this. First, as I just said, you are not damping correctly! You need to damp the entire surface of the bell, otherwise the note will not completely damp. Second, you might be overextending your wrist when you flip the bell towards your body. You don’t need to do that, and it could cause damage over time.
Warning: I am not a doctor. I do not know things.
4. Thumb Damp + Mart = <3
If you have repeated marts, or you need to ring immediately after a mart, place your thumb on the casing of the bell as if you are thumb damping while you mart. The mart will still play as usual, but when you lift the bell, the note will not still be sounding. Very neat trick.
To composers: if you have repeated marts in a section of your piece, I would recommend inserting a footnote, assuming your publishers let you, instructing them to thumb damp while marting. Some directors may not address it unless it is very obvious, and many ringers may not notice the leftover sound, but if you want a clean, staccato mart, this is the way to go.
5. Do not 4iH literally everything.
I know. Trust me. As a treble ringer it is so easy, when you are ringing several octaves of bells, your part has a lot of accidentals, or you are covering more than two notes, to ring four-in-hand for an entire piece, never placing down bells you don’t need. It takes time to plan out when you can pick up, put down, or shelly an extra bell, and it’s not always time you can take during rehearsal, but your wrists will thank you in the long run. When ringing multiple bells simultaneously in one hand, shelley ringing is always preferable. It is a more natural, fluid motion and is easier on your wrists. If you need to 4iH, do it as necessary and put down the extra bell when you’re not using it or switch to shelley when it’s applicable.
6. Hold the mallets loosely and alternate hands.
Ask any percussionists — there is not supposed to be tension in your hand when you’re holding a drumstick.
Warning: I am not a percussionist. I do not know things.
Loosen up, and hold the mallet close to the bell. Don’t whack it like it’s a baseball bat. If you let primarily the weight of the mallet strike the bell, you will be less likely to clang.
You have two for a reason. Switching hands while malleting will prevent you from speeding up during repeated notes, and it can help you create a pulse (accenting the downbeat as opposed to every eighth note or not accenting any note). It also looks pretty cool. It’s like marching, but with your hands. And there’s mallets in them.
7. Find out who is turning the page and write it in.
This is actually really important. When I’m sight-reading, I have a tendency to totally take control and I will do whatever is necessary (including accidentally flinging a bell across the table) to turn that page. But nobody should have to do that during a performance. Figure it out ahead of time. If you need to memorize the first few measures of the next page, do it and turn late . Some people even photocopy the next stanza of the piece and paperclip it in so that they can turn when it’s more comfortable. Whatever it is you need to do — plan ahead with your stand partner, and write it in. If there’s any confusion during a performance, seeing your name before the bottom of the page will remind you that you aren’t ringing anything for two measures, your stand partner is weaving for days, and if you don’t turn that page now, it’s gonna get messy.
Something as simple as coordination with your stand partner or coordination with your own hands may seem like it isn’t as important as dynamics or rhythm, but think about it this way: you are an athlete. (At least, that’s what our bus always says.) Athletes need to practice. Not just playing the game and knowing the rules, but they need to train their muscles, their lungs, their reflexes.
Warning: I don’t do the sports. I don’t know things.
What we do with our bells is just as much a reflex as hitting a tennis ball with a racket or catching a baseball. It has to do with strength, agility, and watching and reacting for the most accurate timing. You need to practice that, even if it’s just turning the page and making sure you can grab your next bell in time. It’s physical.
Well, that’s all for now. This whole blog thing is turning out to be okay, but in case I run out of ideas or something, shoot me a message of something you think I should talk about, whether it’s related to a specific musical topic, handbells, composition, etc.