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Home > Articles > Singing Handbell Dowels

Singing Handbell Dowels

      Hello, fellow campanologists and handbell enthusiasts! Professor Handbell here with in-depth insight into the inner workings of the wonderful world of handbells (from a scientific perspective, of course!).
Today's article deals with that most lovely of ringing techniques, the singing bell.  As techniques go, this one is fairly new.  A few short years ago, only a handful of arrangements featured the singing bell. Today it seems to be everywhere.  You can certainly see – or hear – why: the singing bell technique creates a surreal, otherworldly sound that entrances audiences and creates an ethereal musical mood.

     I wouldn't be doing my job as The Top Teacher of Tintinnabulation if I didn't bore you with a brief history lesson here, so stay awake.  The singing bell technique is adapted from singing bowls found in Asia (Himalayan Bowls in Tibet, Nepal, and India; rin gongs in Japan), a tradition that dates back to the tenth century or before.  Rather than being inverted or rung with a handle, these bowls sit with the bottom resting and the rim facing upward. The outer edge is then rubbed with a stick, with the resulting vibrations creating the unique sound.

     Recreating this effect on handbells is done in basically the same way. Hold the handbell with the non-dominant hand and away from the body, so that the casting may vibrate freely. With a wooden stick, or dowel (more on these later), held in the dominant hand, rub the outside rim in a circular motion in either direction, keeping an even pressure. Gently increase the speed as the casting begins to vibrate and the sound grows.  Decreasing the speed slightly as the vibrations become stronger (and the resulting sound becomes louder) allows the dowel to remain in complete contact with the handbell. It sometimes helps to tap the casting lightly with the dowel to begin the vibration before rubbing the rim. This tapping technique is especially effective on larger handbells.

And now, about those dowels...
     There are a few places around where you can buy these premade, but it's also fairly easy to make them yourself.  Dowel rods can be purchased from most home improvement stores (remember when these were just called hardware stores?  I digress...) and are approximately $5 for a 3-foot length.  These rods can then be cut down to lengths of 6”-12”, depending on what feels best to you.  Look for rods around 1-inch in diameter.  A little smaller or larger is okay.  Again, it depends on your grip preference.

     Hard woods - oak, maple, walnut or ash - work best, as they provide more friction and allow the bells to reach their resonant frequency more easily.  Be sure to sand any edges where you have made cuts, but leave the rest of the dowel rough.  You may even want to roughen them up a bit more using 50-80 grit sandpaper.  Trust me: if the dowel is too smooth, it is much harder to get the vibration started.  Friction is your friend when it comes to this technique.

So now that you know more about the history, the how-to, and the hardware, go out there and make those handbells sing!!!