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Handbells: a festive instrument

Handbells aren’t just ringing for the Salvation Army this holiday season. If you’ve ever tuned in to a holiday music special, you’ve probably seen a handbell choir playing the Christmas standards. Handbells have been a part of the holiday landscape for hundreds of years. Here are some facts you may not know about handbells:

1.   People who play handbells are called “ringers.” We’ve heard all the jokes—don’t worry.

2.   There are only two handbell makers in the United States, Schulmerich and Malmark, and they have a longstanding rivalry. Ringers are adamant in their preference of one over the other, and you can’t mix makers in your choir—they sound quite different. The rivalry is so famous and fascinating that the NPR podcast Planet Money devoted an episode to it.

3.   To ring a bell, hold it between your thumb and pointer finger and wrap remaining fingers around the base. Drop the bell as if you’re creating a great circle with it, keeping the wrist perpendicular to the ground at all times (some handbell directors ask you to pretend you’re holding a glass you don’t want to spill) and the clapper will naturally hit the bell at the bottom of the arc. Each note you play must be damped at the appropriate time against the body—rung sounds decay slowly.

4.   Though they look like big hunks of indestructible metal, bells are actually quite fragile. Oils from ringers’ hands can degrade the finish on the bells. Bells are polished frequently and occasionally sent back to their makers for tune-ups (literally) that involve grinding small bits of bronze from the bell to maintain the proper sounding pitch and overtones. But the primary way to keep bells safe from tarnish is to wear gloves when handling them.

Bass handbell, Malmark. Photo by Wanda Lotus. Used with permission.
Bass handbell, Malmark. Photo by Wanda Lotus. Used with permission.

5.   There are many additional ways to play handbells beyond the standard ringing and damping described above. Arrangers often use different articulation techniques to create expressive changes and multiple timbres in a single piece. While ringing a bell has a sustained sound, many of these techniques stop the sound or change the sound of the bell in drastic ways. This list details the many different ways bells can be played, and many can be heard in action in the videos linked below.

6.   Handbell performers, no matter their level of experience, must learn to move and work together. Most ringers are assigned two consecutive letter-named bells (along with their sharp/flat counterparts) that they must play regardless of whether they are part of melody or accompaniment lines. Ringers often find themselves participating in both a melody and accompaniment line (sometimes simultaneously), and must work with their fellow ringers to create consistent musical lines that pass quickly between several performers. Watch how seamlessly the professionals in the Raleigh Ringers perform this holiday classic.

7.   Handbell tune ringing is descended from a practice called change ringing, which can be done with handbells or, more commonly, the peal bells in a church tower. In change ringing, each bell in the set is assigned a number, and ringers play all the “changes” (i.e., possible permutations of these numbers) before completing the ring. Depending on the number of bells that participate and the size of the bells, this can take several hours. Change-ringing has also been used as an example of mathematical concepts in combinatorics.

8.   Because handbell ringing is so community-oriented, when choirs get together at handbell festivals, they often will perform a set of pieces all together. This can mean upwards of 600 bells in the same room, ringing simultaneously. This video from a recent festival doesn’t do it justice, but it’s still an incredible sight.

9.   In the upper octaves, bells become very small and it’s possible to hold more than one in a hand. More experienced ringers will be asked to play the upper octave doublings in this register, holding each bell and its octave double in such a way that either bell could be played on its own. Called “four-in-hand” for the four bells the ringer will hold (two in each hand), the ringer lays the handles of the bells perpendicular to one another so that by changing the rotation of the hand, each bell can be struck separately, or by changing the rotation yet again, all together. Holding three bells in each hand (“six-in-hand”) requires even more finesse and is rare in choral ringing.

10.   Although traditionally handbells are played by a group of ringers, each responsible for two to six bells, some handbell ringers challenge themselves by doing solo-ringing. Unlike choral ringing, where a ringer is responsible for a particular line and space on the staff (and occasionally the octave doublings), a solo-ringer must play it all by herself—a challenging feat that requires extensive planning and choreography. Solo-ringers are often compared to dancers—and for good reason. Here is one such performance.

Headline image credit: Handbells. Photo by Suguri F. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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