Monday, April 9, 2012

H is for Handbells

I know it's a bit of an unusual instrument but I started playing handbells in grade school.  We had a 3 octave set at the church where I went to school and when you were in 7th and 8th grade, you could join the student handbell choir.

Handbells are a unique instrument.  Some would say it's easy to learn because generally, you're only in charge of two notes (one for each hand).  What these people fail to realize is that you're trying to play your two notes at the same time and rhythm as everyone else (so a director is extremely important).  The other thing with handbells is that if you need a sharp or a flat, you have to switch bells.  Sometimes this requires a lot of planning if the composer wrote in some crazy sharp/flat quick changes for your two notes. It also makes it interesting if you're sharing a bell between two people (like I have D and you have E, we share D#/Eb).  This is why I like the Malmark bells because they are color coded like piano keys.

You also do so much more things with bells than just plain ringing.  You can hit them with mallets.   You can swing them behind your back.  You can pluck them.  You can smash them into the table (don't worry, it's padded). 

So, I played handbells in 7th and 8th grade.  Then, I played with the adult handbell choir at church when I was a freshman and went to my first bell festival (very very deafening but extremely fun).

Then, my high school decided to buy a 5 octave set of bells.  I was one of the first members of the choir.  We practiced 3 hours a week.  I don't think the rest of the music department respected us (we were the new kids on the block compared to the show choir, the contemporary Christian group and the band ensembles) until we returned from the solo/ensemble festival with a 1st at state in our first year.  I don't think since that time, the choir has ever not had a 1st at state.  I know I have three medals for each year that I did it hanging on my wall.

To make things more interesting, I was the "floater" which meant if someone didn't show up, I played their bells.  

Another thing that people don't consider is the time and effort it takes to set up your 5 octaves of handbells.  We have 6 tables with table pads, 9 cases containing 61 handbells, music stands and other things like mallets.  We got to the point that we could set up the whole setup in about 5 minutes (use to get compliments on that).  The cases are also extremely heavy once you get to the large bells which weigh 10 lbs apiece.

I found this picture on Wisco's website.  We had special robes for handbells (in fact, I used to have both those robes hanging in my closet).  The guy on the left is wearing a regular choir robe and you can't really see it but the sleeves are huge.  Kind of gets in the way of ringing.  And your stole will keep falling down.  The girl on the right is wearing on of the handbell robes that all of us got together and designed.  The sleeves are cuffed so that your sleeves don't get in the way.  And we had extra padding at the collarbone because if you don't watch it, you can get bruises there from silencing your handbells there.  Normally, you wear gloves but we found out that gloves aren't necessary so we don't wear them.

Based on the comments today, click on this link to hear my favorite handbell piece.


  1. I love hand bell choirs! I can't play myself but I do really enjoy them.

  2. I love hand bells! But it was too complicated for me to ever figure out...a lot of hand-eye-ear-etc. coordination...I have none of that! Congrats!

  3. Hand bells are beautiful to listen to. I always enjoy the opportunities I have to hear them.

  4. In response to the comments, I have edited my post to include a link to my favorite handbell piece "Variations on Madrid" which has almost every single handbell technique in the book in it. And handchimes too.

  5. I came back to hear your favorite hand bell piece. It is indeed beautiful. Thanks for commenting on my blog and letting me know you added it.
    (I see you're a fellow knitter. Yay!)

  6. Did you buy your self-designed robes from a company, or did you have someone make them?


    1. They were made by a robe company but we customized the design.


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