Lee Hinson

by Lee Hinson

Oklahoma Representative


Very early in my college music training, I was taught that while every instrumentalist and vocalist had their means of making music, the conductor’s “instrument” was the ensemble they were directing. The conductor interprets and performs the music through a group of other musicians. Obviously, this means you begin with what is on the printed page, working for accuracy in notes and rhythms. Then, directors should be open to what musical things can be done beyond what is printed on the page. What would make the music more engaging to the audience, more musical, more entertaining, more unique, or even more practical for your group of ringers as it is performed? These are times that call for some of our greatest creativity as handbell directors. The ideas in this brief article are a starting place for being more flexible with the players that may be available and adapting the music to serve the needs of your situation.

As a conductor of choirs, handbells, and other instrumental ensembles, I have sometimes found tempos to be relative. In other words, the tempo that was marked or suggested in the music did not fit the ensemble I was directing or the space in which the ensemble would perform. Do not hear me saying that tempo markings should be ignored! Sometimes it is simply better to play a piece more musically at a slower speed than to perform it less accurately (and with less confidence) at the marked tempo.

Dynamics are sometimes difficult to achieve with handbells. Everyone is hammering away at their bells, focusing on right rhythms and counting! First, remember that the bells which are playing on the smallest unit of rhythm in the music are the means of controlling crescendos and diminuendos. But beyond that, I have sometimes reversed the dynamics that are called for heading into a modulation or change in voicing. Why? Because it seemed more musical and offered a better performance in that spot for the group I was directing. The point is, do not be afraid to try departing from the dynamics in the music if it achieves something that is more musical for your ensemble.

Lastly, allow yourself as the director to experiment with some of the wonderful sounds that handbells can make. For example, a mart-lift may not be indicated in the score but may be just the right touch to make a cadence sparkle. Or perhaps consider using more LV in the upper bells through a passage, even if it is not marked in the score. Allowing the LV to build up can often add to the texture of the sound. I once achieved a terrace dynamic effect by malleting the bells gently with the rubber handles of the mallets, then switching to the proper end of the mallet. If the melody is in the middle bells (lower treble clef), it can sometimes get lost. Try playing that melodic passage on hand chimes instead of bells. These are just a few of the many things that can be done to enliven the music and create interest for both audience and performer.

Playing beyond the music may be especially helpful to handbell directors in these days. More conductors may find themselves leading simple arrangements or using ensemble pieces due to less personnel. What could be done to play simple arrangements with more style and effectiveness? Start with the music as written. Then look beyond the printed score to envision what might be added or enhanced or be made even more beautiful.