This article written by Kerry Johnston, North Carolina State Chair, for Area 3’s Bell-O-Gram May 2019 edition. You can see the original article and much more at area3.handbellmusicians.org
We all have our own ways to do things. If you are like me, you tend to get into a pattern of rehearsal, using techniques that work. But how do you handle situations when nothing seems to work? Perhaps some of the procedures listed below will be new to you and helpful in your rehearsals.
Warm-ups: do you or don’t you? I tend to not use warm-ups much, instead beginning with a less challenging piece to get the ensemble ringing, then moving on to progressively harder selections as the rehearsal moves forward. If you want to start with warmups, there are published ones available, but with the ease of acquiring music notation software, it is easy to write your own warm-ups targeted toward working on challenging passages in the music your ensembles are working on.
An aside: some of you, I know, like to do the stretching, mutual shoulder massage, etc. type of physical warm-up. If that works for you, then great, but some folks don’t care for the invasion of personal space. I find that most ringers are physically warmed up enough from their day out and about.
Is a particularly rhythmic passage just not coming together? Try having your ringers tap the rhythm out on their bells laid on the table, then try ringing once the rhythm is under their belts. Similar techniques that work are to have the ringers mallet the passage, or lightly mart the passage until the rhythm is mastered.
It may seem obvious, but I will often work basses alone on a passage, then trebles alone, then combine the staves once the passage is worked out. You may also need to separate out stem-up voices and stem-down voices to work on certain passages.
Do you find that passages using mallets tend to speed up? This is common with volunteer ringers. Ringers who are concerned with reading music, playing the correct bell at the correct time, and doing that with a mallet, of all things, will tend to speed up. Again, have them tap or mart the passage first, paying attention to tempo. Be sure to tell ringers to keep mallets no more than about 6 inches from the casting, like a percussionist would hold mallets if playing orchestral bells, marimba, or xylophone. The further distance the mallet has to travel, the less possible is a good result in tempo and accuracy.
Speaking of mallets, make sure that mallets played on the table rebound from the casting. If the ringers let the mallet stop on the casting, the result will be a dry, dull sound that does not allow the bell to ring and decay naturally, even when sitting on pads.
Do your ensembles play with a wide range of dynamics? Practice playing a chord from loud to soft and back again, varying the dynamic level with each new strike. Try going from pianissimo to fortissimo, or the opposite dynamic contrast. Start a chord on a shake as softly as possible, build to fortissimo, then R a new strike back at pianissimo. Or, make up your own creative exercises.
Is a piece just not coming together at a rehearsal? If so, move on to another piece that you know your ringers can ring well, and let that confidence builder help turn the tide of the rehearsal. Return later to the difficult piece, or save it until next rehearsal.
Pesky page turn? Ringers can memorize brief passages! This can get one past a particularly awkward page-turn (don’t blame the publishers; sometimes that is just how the piece lays out). Or, write in the name of the next note(s) after the page turn. Both these techniques are helpful in navigating the music.
For a challenging bell change, try some solo ringing techniques. Three bells in front of ringers, numbered 1-2-3 or 3-2-1. Play 1-3-2-3, or 3-2-3-1, with right or left hand making the bell change, until this change pattern is comfortable. Then, practice 1-2-3-2, or 3-2-1-2, with the change hand crossing under. Or, do any permutation you wish that gets your ringers used to release the death grip on only 2 of the bells in their assignment. The changing will drive some ringers to utter frustration at first, but practice will make the changing come easier with time.
Be flexible! If you find something isn’t working well, don’t doggedly pursue it as though it will magically correct itself. Sometimes it takes a new approach to solve a problem, or to get a handbell piece ready for presentation. Be open to doing whatever needs doing to get a piece ready. If that means changing up rehearsal techniques, so be it!
These are just a few tips that I have found worked successfully with my church and community choirs. I know that many of you reading this will have others, and I would appreciate hearing about them. Send to me at firstname.lastname@example.org so that we can share in future Bell-O-Grams. Happy ringing!