If you’re reading this, you certainly don’t need me to tell you that 2020 has been a heartbreaking year. Amid the closing of Broadway and theaters around the country, church choirs on indefinite hiatus, community bands not meeting, summer conferences cancelled, school choirs, bands, and orchestras scrambling to find ways to teach, and all manner of music-making ground to a halt, one thing stands: the desire of musicians to make music. We need it like we need air to breathe.
The ingenuity of those who have adapted online platforms to create virtual ensembles lifts my spirits, as do the rank and file people who have braved the technological hurdles to participate. It’s not quite the same as being in the same room, but it is fulfilling, nonetheless.
I am here to suggest that one way to keep your music-making alive is to take up handbell ringing, or resurrect it, or continue it, depending on your situation. The Handbell Industry Council, which includes manufacturers of handbells and peripheral equipment, publishers, and elite performing organizations, has guidelines for ringing safely on their web site:
The benefits of ringing during the pandemic are:
- We can ring while wearing a mask
- We can ring with the required 6 feet of separation
- Gloves and table coverings can be washed after rehearsal
- There are ways to sanitize handbell handles, mallet shafts, and handchime tubes, as well as to keep the bronze castings clean
- We can keep people on the same positions so no equipment is shared.
It’s probable that what worked before — full ensembles of 7-15 people lined up along linear tables, sharing enharmonics and music — is not going to be possible right now. You might have ringers who are not comfortable returning to ringing yet, or you may not have space to keep everyone six feet apart. Let’s dive a little deeper.
Look for music written for 2-3 octave handbells, or even smaller ensembles. There is a wealth of 12-bell and 8-bell music that can be rung by as few as 2-4 people. Look for music with no accidentals/bell changes and you don’t need tables, just music stands! Don’t forget the vast repertoire of solo handbell music with piano accompaniment. Many of these titles have MP3 accompaniments that you can purchase if you can’t perform with a pianist. An exciting and emerging sub-genre is belltree music. Bells are hung on a stand with straight metal arms and malleted. Many pieces written for solo handbells can be rung from a belltree instead of off a table.
Jubilate Music Group, which publishes the Alfred Handbell line, has some exciting new solo and ensemble pieces which can help provide you with ringing resources. The Jubilate Handbell Chamber Series has everything from solo and belltree music to duets and quartets, including these exciting titles:
Lush harmonies and a middle handchime section leading to a thrilling climax in this expansive setting of the cherished Christmas carol.
This rousing medley was written to give the effect of a Sunday night gospel hymn sing, complete with a few country or bluegrass pickers in the group! The use of stopped techniques enhances the energetic mood of the piece.
A laid-back bass groove and mallet hits/clicks drive this exciting arrangement of the traditional spiritual. Ringers will enjoy the opportunity to be part of the rhythm section as the persistent knocking continues, with shakes and echo effects adding to the fun. It will delight your audiences and is appropriate for concert, worship, festival, and school occasions all year long.
We also have a vast repository of 2–3 octave music for those who can’t manage larger ensembles right now, for personnel or space issues. Our Fall and Christmas 2020 release for full choirs is on the shelves, and we hope that you’ll take time to see what creative and refreshing offerings are there for your future needs, too.
We will be together again, singing and making music. Until then, pull out those bells and have a great time ringing. I bet you’ll want to keep going forever. A handbell ensemble is easy to get started and you can take it as far as your imagination will go.
Sondra Tucker, BSE, MMus is Handbell Editor for Alfred Handbell, a division of Jubilate Music Group. She is a retired Organist/Choirmaster and Chair of Area 6 of Handbell Musicians of America, and teaches composition at the Master Series of classes sponsored by the Guild. She is in demand as a conductor and clinician for denominational and Guild events. Sondra is an accomplished organist and flutist, and her published works include music for choir, organ, and instrumental ensembles in addition to handbells. She lives in Memphis with her husband, and has two children and two granddaughters.