Friday, December 2, 2011

Handbells - An Informational Rant

Perhaps you've seen the couple on Britain's Got Talent who played Titanic's My Heart Will Go On. Perhaps you've just heard ringing now and again at Christmas time.

Or perhaps you've seen the episode of Fox's show, New Girl, which happened to feature the instrument(s) known as handbells. As much as I like the show and appreciate their efforts to include a fairly unknown instrument, I can't say I approved their methods. Most of the sound produced may have been handbells (though it mostly sounded synthetic) but none-to-little of it matched what the actors onscreen were playing.

So, for those interested, here's a little informational rant summary on handbells.

Handbells, as indicated by their name, are a series of bells which are held and played by hand. To play, the ringer has to either hit the bell with an external mallet (like a xylophone or marimba) or swing the bell so that the inner clapper strikes the bell surface. There are other techniques to produce sound, such as plucking or the "Singing Bowl" technique, but these are mostly only in advanced groups. Clanking may occur when two bells bump into each other, so most ringers space them out as far as possible (but still within reach).

As with any percussion instrument, the sound only stops when the surface stops vibrating. Typically handbells are dampened on one's chest, or by laying it down on the padded playing table.

Each bell is sized for a specific pitch, much like a piano's strings. In fact, handbells are often colored off of piano keys, either by their handles or the handguards (disks separating handle from bell) being white or black. Thus, to achieve a full octave of 13 notes (C to C), you need to have 13 bells.

Because of the amount of hardware required, handbells are usually used by groups of ringers, forming a handbell choir. Beginners often start with 1 or 2 notes/bells, and their accidentals (sharps & flats). More advanced ringers may move to 4-in-hand (2 bells per hand) or even 6-in-hand (3 bells per hand) in the upper octaves, but the ringing techniques are much harder because of trying not to 1) clank the bells together or 2) play 2 notes at once.

Some ringers are skilled enough to be able to handle more bells by themselves, such that entire octaves or more are played by 1 or 2 people. This greatly reduces harmonics and undertones, since most bells are being played singly to produce the melody. You will see the majority of groups consisting of at least 4 or more.

Ringing techniques may alter the sound slightly, but really there is very little variation on how the note can be manipulated once struck. Swinging the bell back and forth can create a Doppler effect (a dimming then increasing in volume), or twirling the wrist while ringing creates a slight variation in sound, but the note never truly changes pitch or gets louder after being struck.

Handbells are most traditionally found at churches, but lately they've started moving into schools and outside organizations. Hillsboro, Oregon's Ring of Fire started as a school group, and has performed at events ranging from news shows to NBA games to Boston Pops concerts.

Bells of the Cascades is a non-profit organization that plays everything from Sleigh Ride to Pirates of the Caribbean. There really is a wide range of music available now, and even more can be made available if more music arrangers would get on the ball.

Though I have yet to find any phenomenal videos that really capture the sound of handbells well, below are a few that I've found to be entertaining or at least a proper showcasing of techniques handbell choirs use.

I've played handbells off and on for the past...oh, 10 years or so. They really are a lot of fun, and a great activity for those who've always wanted to learn music but haven't had the aptitude or courage for a solo instrument or voice. I've known people that couldn't even read notes who would play along by highlighting their music for when their left/right hand plays.

If you're interested in joining or forming a handbell group, I'd recommend checking out Handbell Musicians of America or searching for one in your country or local area.

Sleigh Ride performed by Bells of the Cascades at an informal concert.

Disney Music including Mainstreet Electrical Parade, How Do You Get to Wonderland?, Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?, Part of Your World & Parade Reprise.

Born This Way by Lady Gaga. Performed as a solo in 4 parts - this has especially great close-ups of technique!

Ring of Fire, an all-teens group, performing for a TV special.

Carol of the Bells similar to Mannheim Steamroller's rendition, played by the Golden Bells of Atlanta.

Beethoven's Joyful Joyful has a slow start, but don't worry, it gets faster

Owl City's Fireflies performed with handchimes - cousins to handbells.

Carol of the Bells Duet performed with a bell-tree & handchimes.

A little fun with the Super Mario Bros. Theme.

The Sabre Dance is typical of carnivals and cartoons, and this group definitely has fun with it.

Flight of the Bumblebee - one of the most difficult pieces for one person to play, let alone a group to be coordinated on!

This group adds some drama to their rendition of Pirates of the Caribbean.

Bells of the Cascades perform Sky-Tinted Waters, an original composition for handbells.

Want to learn a bit more? Check out the How It's Made episode featuring handbells!

Thank you for bearing with me, and I hope you've enjoyed.