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Mathis on Mallets
William Mathis
There has been an increase in the use of mallets with handbells in the last few years, along with new musical uses for them, ways of indicating their use in printed music, and the availability of a variety of mallets on the market.

I'd like to address a few concerns that I hear in workshops and other gatherings of bell directors.

First, how are mallets used? While new techniques in nearly every aspect of ringing are being "discovered" constantly, there are basically two ways to use a mallet on a bell:
1. Holding the bell in one hand and the mallet in the other, strike the bell on the outside of the casting at the same distance from the lip as the clapper.

2. With the bell lying on the table, strike the bell in the same spot as with #1.

The first gives a "rung" sound, but generally one that may be lighter and somewhat thinner than an actual ring. The sound is not generally intended to be damped, but allowed to ring "LV". The second gives a sound that is similar to a "plucked" sound.

There are a substantial number of pieces in the repertoire that call for the "rung"-type mallet use, first most widely used be Betty Garee with the Klokken Ringers. Only lately have we begun to see many pieces using mallets for the plucked sounds, mostly in the fast passages.

When my ringers noticed how much greater control they had over rhythmic accuracy and dynamics with mallets than with actual plucking, they asked if they could use mallets whenever actual plucking became less reliable. I agreed and we now get out the mallets at the beginning of rehearsal along with the bells.

The second question that comes up often is, "How do I know what size mallets to give each ringer?" The answer lies basically in experimentation and personal preference.In choosing which mallets to buy, you really should get one of each size from each manufacturer that interests you and try the mallets in your own Sanctuary on your own bells.

Mallets come with various degrees of hardness in the head with the harder ones intended for use on smaller, higher pitched bells; often the hardest mallet has a head made of a nylon ball. The softer, larger mallet head is obviously for lower bells; it is often yarn-wrapped and relatively heavy.

Try out as many different types and brands of mallets as you can, and keep careful notes. Note that there can be a large difference in the sound the same mallet makes when it’s used on two bells of the same pitch which are from different companies.

You will notice that there are actual breaks where the casting size changes dramatically, requiring a different hardness. Finally, observe how the breaks in the casting and the tone relate to your preferred ringer assignments.

In trying out mallets on your own bells, lay out all of the bells on the tables. Then, beginning with the labeled range on the handle of each mallet, begin experimenting, plucking a bell to find the mallet that most closely duplicates that sound. The more sizes a set of mallets has available, the closer you will be able to get to the effect that you’re after.

After you've selected the mallets you prefer, keep on hand a pair of mallets for the bells each ringer is usually assigned and just enough to cover a few "borrowed" bells; then, for times when we need a sound to be more bright or more mellow than normal, we have a spare one or two in each size.

William Mathis leads handbell clinics nationally, has conducted massed handbell choirs at national and regional festivals and edits music for Fred Bock Publishing Company.Vibrations, Winter 1989