Fun Facts about Handbells

by Helena Taylor

  • People who play handbells are known as ‘Ringers’. Not ding-a-lings. The joke wasn’t funny the first time, and it still not funny years… (decades) later.
  • PT Barnum (Yes, ‘A handbell ringer is born every minute’ PT Barnum) is credited for bringing the English handbell to the USA in the 1840s.
  • There is a difference between English handbells and American handbells. In the United Kingdom, English handbells have leather clapper heads and handles, while American handbells use plastic and rubber clappers and handles. However, in the USA, they’re all known as English handbells even though they’re produced in Pennsylvania. (There’s also a big competition between the two main American manufacturers of English handbells. Take it from me, never try to mix the two brands in the same ensemble. Ringers will notice and you will be called a ding-a-ling.)
  • English handbells are chromatically tuned brass bells, traditionally held by leather handles.

  • The smaller the handbell, the higher the sound. The bells range from two inches to more than 15 inches in diameter. Some of the larger bells can weigh more than 15 pounds. For example a C8 may weigh 8 ounces, while a G2 can weigh in at over 18 pounds!
  • Handbell ensembles can consist of one octave all the way up to seven octaves.
  • In the United States, an ensemble is known as a handbell choir or ensemble, while in the UK, the ensemble is known as a handbell team. It is also possible to play an octave or more handbells solo.
  • Handbell players wear gloves because their hand oils tarnish the bells. This in turns leads to the traditional end of the season ‘Handbell Polishing Party’.
  • Handbells are remarkably fragile and may require reshaping if they are rung too forcibly.
  • Most handbell pieces are four minutes or less as they are predominately used in religious settings. A version of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody clocks in at slightly more than eight minutes. (No, don’t bother asking your Minister of Music if you can play that at the Contemporary Worship service. Just don’t.)

  • Most handbell players play one bell with each hand. Depending on the size of the ensemble and the complexity of the piece, they may play four in hand, or even six in hand.

  • Handbells are normally played by having the clapper strike the bell. It is usually produced by holding the handbell against one shoulder and then swinging the handbell.
  • There are a number of abbreviations and notations used exclusively or almost exclusively in handbell music:
    • LV (“laissez vibrer” or “let vibrate”, similar to a piano’s sustain pedal)
    • R (“ring”, regular ringing or meaning to end the LV)
    • SK (“shake”, i.e. shaking the bell continuously during the duration of the note)
    • TD (“thumb damp”, ringing the bell with a thumb on the casting to create a staccato note)
    • PL (“pluck”, which means to throw down the clapper while the bell lies on the table)
    • ▲ (“martellato”, to strike bell against padding of the table, pushing the casting firmly against padding as to quickly dampen sound) (Personal experience, the Martellato is quite useful in waking up audience members before the sermon commences.)
    • SW (“swing”, to play the bell in a normal position, swing it down to the waist, then bring it back up)
    • BD (“brush damp”, brushing the rim of the bell against the ringer’s chest to cause a quick diminuendo)
    • ↑ or ↪ (“echo”, ringing the bell and then touching it very briefly to the table, creating an echo effect)

Shop handbell sheet music at Sheet Music Plus.

 

Helena Taylor is QA extraordinaire, SMP Press and Easy Rebates expert and the resident Ringer at Sheet Music Plus.

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