This article written by Ruth Seiwell, Area 9 Past Chair
I love and enjoy watching, ringing in, or listening to a full five to seven-octave handbell ensemble. However, it is not always possible to have the luxury of enough people to ring a full set of bells. Our church owns five octaves of handbells and handchimes, but we do not have the thirteen ringers needed to ring the bells and chimes available to us.
Small handbell ensembles can be a challenge, or they can be a wonderful, effective group who are a valuable addition to worship services. It takes planning and creativity to have an active small group of ringers. Let’s explore a few ways to create a remarkable musical handbell experience for a small ensemble. There are many resources available to a small ensemble, and only a few of the numerous available will be mentioned here.
Our church has a beautiful intergenerational handbell ensemble of seven ringers. As the director, I face a few challenges, all of which are worth every minute I expend. The primary goal is to have an active music ministry. Another goal of this music ministry group is to produce musical selections which have a musical line with interest, dimension, and depth of sound. One more goal is to be included as often as possible in worship, in both traditional and contemporary services.
This group ranges in age from fifteen to seventy-three. The skill range is as wide as the age range! Three ringers are talented four-in-hand ringers, others are intermediate in ringing and music reading skills, and one is challenged primarily in reading the notes. Even with the variety of skills, the ensemble is one in spirit and works together well. They help each other as needed and are a great support group for one another. They are indeed a loving music ministry group.
With a small ensemble in a fairly large church space, we do use microphones to amplify the sound. This allows the sound of a small group to be heard clearly. Using mics is always a question; and in this situation, they work well.
A variety of musical approaches are used. Frequently, the group rings G4-C8. The addition of chimes in various lines results in an exciting musical product. The treble four-in-hand ringers add the upper bells to add dimension. Some of the lower pitches, C4-F4, are also added when a ringer has an extra hand to add additional depth and dimension. Multiple pieces of handbell literature are used. In most selections, changes are made, such as adding upper octaves or changing a line to be on handchimes rather than handbells.
The ensemble also utilizes handbell selections that include a piano accompaniment or addition of another instrument. Hand drums, tambourine, and finger symbols are also additions used to create new, interesting sounds.
One resource is ‘More Hymns for Three to Six Ringers’ by Sandra Eithun (Lorenz 20/1951L). A favorite from this collection is ‘Faith of Our Fathers.’ In this piece, we added chimes and the upper octave of bells during a portion of the piece. This has been rung successfully twice during the last year. The result is a glorious musical offering with piano accompaniment. The ensemble has also worked on ‘To God Be the Glory’ in this collection to sharpen the skills on dotted rhythms.
This group rings in both contemporary and traditional church settings. One of our very successful presentations was using a repeated eight measures of ‘This Little Light of Mine’ rung on bell trees with guitar, drum, and keyboard accompaniment. This was a part of both worship services. The congregation also sang along. A very simple arrangement turned into a multi-dimensional piece. This was great in that no one had any experience with bell trees, so all ringers were on equal par.
At Christmas, the group rang ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’ from ‘Twelve Bells +1 for Christmas’ arr. Patricia Coda (Agape 2691). The upper treble line was doubled in various parts. The group also worked on other carols in the book during the Christmas season for enjoyment and for practice with different rhythms.
Simple melody line or descants are also added to hymns as requested. This can be accomplished with even fewer than seven ringers. Singing bells also add dimension and interest to church services and as needed for special effects. Each year some combination of handbells and handchimes is used on All Saint’s Sunday as the names of those who died during the last year are read. Next All Saint’s Day, a different approach may be used by ringing some version of ‘Westminster Chimes’ as each name is read.
This spring the ensemble plans to play much of the worship service. The primary resource is ‘Ready to Ring II’ arr. Martha Lynn Thompson and Frances L Callahan (Agape 1168). From this collection, ‘Fanfare or Trumpet Voluntary’ will serve as a call to worship, and ‘Jesus Loves Me, This I Know – II’ is perfect as children come forward for the children’s sermon. ‘Let There Be Peace on Earth’ arr. Arnold B Sherman (Agape 2210) is planned as the anthem/offertory. All selections are within musical reach of the group and allow bells to be incorporated throughout the service.
Another creative use of the bells and other non-bell participants in our repertoire is ringing ‘Joshua Fit the Battle’ arr. Thomas Gregory (Agape 2788). This is to be a short handbell/drama presentation. The ringers will ring the piece on bells while others act out the drama of those approaching the wall and knocking down the wall (complete with costumes and a cardboard wall). A hand drum will accentuate the fall of the wall. In this way, a larger number of individuals can participate, and the piece becomes much more interesting than the bells simply ringing the piece. The hope is always that some of the actors will be interested in the bells and join the ringing group.
Many of the ideas mentioned appear to be specific to churches, this is not the case. The ideas above can be used in schools, nursing homes, or other kinds of public appearances.
I love handbells and handchimes, and I would like every set to be used. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Many sets are staying idle in closets. Many are not in use due to too few ringers. Others are not used because contemporary services have become the primary style of worship in a church. In the discussion above are ways to incorporate handbells in different types of worship and with small numbers of ringers. Even a single ringer can bring the bells into a worship service and keep them from staying in a closet unused. Although the audience of this article is like preaching to the choir, perhaps it will help a single person to see a way to use the bells in a new or different or novel way.