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Bell Ringing

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When you think of the instruments that make music, you might name a piano, a guitar, a harp or even a trumpet. But how often do you think of bells?

With the proper training and proper wrist and arm movement, some fine melodies can flow from a handbell. They range in size "from smaller than a teacup to larger than a big punch bowl," says Malia Johnson. She rings for two Washington groups, the Seattle Bell Ensemble and Bells of the Sound.

Most bell ringing groups have 11 to 15 people. With practice, anyone can learn to make fine melodies with handbells.
Courtesy of: Mark Decker Sonosian

According to the Manitoba Guild of English Handbell Ringers' Web site, the first handbell concert in North America was on Beacon Hill in Boston in 1902.

Bell ringing, however, has a much earlier beginning. Bell ringers of centuries long ago would climb church towers and ring the bells in mathematical progressions called change ringing, which is still practiced today.

Some people wanted the pleasure of ringing bells melodiously, but without the heavy ropes and climbing. So hand-held versions of the bells were made. That's according to the Manitoba Guild of English Handbell Ringer's Web site.

In fact, many handbell ringers start out in church choirs. But bell ringing is becoming so popular that you can access handbells outside a church. There are many community and college handbell groups and regional guilds where a beginner can go to learn.

"We've seen a huge surge of schools and nursing homes purchase bells or chimes, because the students or elderly in particular can do it. We also have seen a surge of community groups develop across the nation," says Johnson. She notes that both colleges she attended offered programs.

"Bells are finding a real place in the musical mainstream and are attracting good composers to write for all sorts of combinations," says James Meredith. He is the director of the Handbell Ensemble Sonos.

He estimates there are a quarter of a million active players, "plus all of the other former players who might be taking a break from bell ringing to earn a living."

Carol Petrie is president of a handbell ringers' guild. She says bell ringing is becoming more popular.

"The whole thing has just taken off in the past four years," she says.

The reason why so many people are taking up bell ringing, says Johnson, is that anyone can do it -- from age nine to 90.

Meredith agrees. "Anyone can try," he says. "There are many groups of seniors. There are some groups of physically disabled players, and there is at least one remarkable group of blind players who learn everything by ear."

Getting Started

Handbells are easy enough to try. The bells range in size from a few ounces to 16 or 17 pounds, says Meredith.

There is no set size of the number of people who can play in a group. But the average group, playing five to six octaves, is usually composed of 11 to 14 bell ringers, says Meredith. "It depends on how the music is written and how many bells are needed," he explains.

"It takes about 30 seconds to figure out how to make a sound with a bell. But the development of proper handbell technique can take different amounts of time, depending on the individual," says Johnson. She is a handbell soloist. That means she handles about 30 to 40 bells alone.

"You can ring bells with one person, or 30 people, depending on the group, and how many bells you have -- one to seven octaves are available currently," she says.

There are duets, trios and quartets. A choir is normally 14 members. Then, there are your "mass ringing situations," she says, which is a conference of 700-plus people.

Ringing also requires no musical skills to start. "Many individuals, including children, learn musical skills through handbells," says Johnson.

"I teach children in the third to sixth grade at my church about handbell ringing. Little do they know, they are actually learning more about how to read music, how to develop coordination skills, [and] how to work as a group."

Often, the hardest part is reading music. "The basic playing skills are fairly simple and can be learned by almost anyone, but music reading skills and a very good sense of rhythm are real pluses," says Meredith.

Petrie agrees. "If you read music already, that is an asset, as there are many things to remember when you first start," she says. She adds that anyone who is willing can learn to read music.

Petrie says it takes about a year -- meeting two to three times a week for an hour -- to become reasonably competent, although everyone is different. "Generally speaking, the wrinkles are all ironed out by then," she says.

Bell ringing is unaffordable if you were to go out on your own and purchase bells, gloves, sheet music, foam pads and tables. "We played on borrowed bells for several years before we were able to buy our own," says Meredith.

"Since most people play in church or community groups, the organization usually has a set of bells. Unlike symphony players who own their own instruments, bell players don't customarily have their own.

"However, as the level of playing increases, many people like to have at least a couple of octaves of bells to practice on their own," he says. Of the 14 players in his ensemble, five own their own bells to practice on. A start-up package would cost about $5,500, he says.

Schulmerich lists individual bell prices between $105 to $250. Sets sell for roughly $5,000.

"Find a fun group to play in and just enjoy it," advises Meredith. "You can certainly just pick one up, but a few simple directions from someone who plays would get you started off right."

In addition, music stores carry instructional books and videos.

For those that have a knack for it, they can perform in a musical group, touring the world. For example, Meredith's group will be traveling to Asia soon. Johnson teaches handbell ringing to younger kids and coaches their groups. A person could also find a career as a music teacher.


Handbell Musicians of America


Handbell Resources
Information and advice for beginners and pros

The Art of Bell Ringing
Learn more about the history of handbell ringing

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