Hand Bell Ensembles: How do they work?

One of my hobbies is bell ringing. Whenever I tell people that I ring bells, I usually have to explain what that means. Most people tend to assume it looks something like this.

I am sorry to break it to you, but as fun as it would be to break into a church with a dozen friends and cause some musical mayhem, that isn’t what we are about.

You are also never going to see us carry any of these:

This is what a hand bell looks like:

In order to ring a bell, you grip the handle at the base, hold it ready at your side and then make an upward circle with your arm. The motion is similar to clinking wine glasses at a party. Under no circumstances can you let any wine spill onto the floor. The ‘cup’ must always remain upright in order to produce a good sound. Also, notice the gloves. It is important for all bell ringers to wear gloves so to not damage the bell with the oil upon our fingers.

How we make music:

To explain how a bell ensemble works I am going to take a step backwards and give you a quick piano lesson. Here are the keys of a piano:

Each of these keys is its own note. Running up the chromatic scale, the succession of notes goes like this: C, C#(also known as Db), D, D#(also known as Eb), E, F, F# (Gb)G, G#(Ab), A, A#(Bb), B, finishing with another C.

Every single note is its own bell. Before a bell ensemble begins a piece, they will stand in line from biggest (lowest) to smallest. The bells start resting upon a cushioned table (we use mattresses covered over with a tablecloth).

The music we are reading looks something like this (excluding the top vocal line):

It looks like a piano piece, right? Piano music and bell music have a lot in common except that a bell ringer’s sole job is to look after their assigned bells.

Let’s say that you are this guy here (middle A).

If you are holding the A bell, your job would be to start counting at the beginning of the piece. Whenever that A appears in the music, it is your turn to make your circle and ring that bell. In the case of Amazing Grace, reading off the second treble line down, you would come in at bar 4 (on the word the), and at bar 11 (at the start of am).

Most beginners in a bell ensemble start off with two consecutive bells, one to ring in each hand. More advanced ringers can be in charge of many notes. They can manage this by picking up and dropping the bells they need throughout the piece or by interlacing (carrying multiple bells within the same hand).

The handbells become even more interesting with the use of techniques such as plucking, thumb dampening (making a staccato (short) note by lifting up the thumb upon the bell, malleting and using a martellato (striking the bell upon the mattress).

All together, a handbell ensemble sounds like this:

Or if you are beginner, perhaps a little something like this (clip from The Big Bang Theory):

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