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Home > Articles > Summer 2007: Repeated Notes in Handbell Music

Summer 2007: Repeated Notes in Handbell Music
Kevin McChesney

The Technique:

The basic ringing stroke is, of course, the “upward oval” or ringing in circles that begin about waist-high and end in the “home” position for bells, which is the damping position on the shoulder. This stroke is so fundamental to bells that we often don’t analyze musical contexts in which there are exceptions to this style of ringing.

One exception, at least in quite a variety of musical contexts which we will discuss below, is repeated-note patterns. While it is true that making circles to ring bells is proper ringing form, there is nothing that says that there must be a circle made for absolutely every note rung.

When ringing repeated notes, say, four quarter notes in 4/4 time, it is appropriate, even desirable, to ring all four notes on ONE circle. This not only gives more musical flow and forward motion to the ringing, but is MUCH easier on the wrists and elbows and muscles involved in the ringing mechanism. Imagine repeating a note for many bars at a time - and this kind of thing is not at all uncommon in handbell literature - and having to create a complete circle on every note. That’s a terrific way to start out with large, bold circles that look wonderful but end up with very small, tired circles- to say nothing of inflicting pain! If several of the repeated notes are played on one circle, there will be much less pain involved and music made will be much smoother.

When playing several repeated notes on one ringing circle, the circle still begins just below waist high - that is, near music stand height - and ends up in the resting or “home” position on the shoulder. The only difference is that several notes have been played instead of just one.

This technique feels a bit awkward the first couple of times,since ringers are so used to playing one note per ringing circle, but it soon becomes quite comfortable and second-nature with a little practice.
The Repeated Note Technique and Science:

Let’s call the technique described above the “repeated note technique.” A logical question is why do it this way?

The first and most important answer is basic physiology. There is MUCH less stress on the arms, hands, wrists, and elbows, in addition to the back and neck and other muscles involved in ringing, in playing repeated notes using this technique. Smaller and more relaxed movements make for more endurance in ringing and preserve the ringing muscles in a healthy way.

There is also a bit of physics involved. Try this simple exercise. Take a bell and ring it, and while it is sounding hold it to your ear with the opening of the bell next to your ear - like you are listening to hear the ocean from the opening of a seashell. Now take the bell and ring it and while it is sounding hold it up to your ear with the SIDE of the bell next to your hear. This second sound is MUCH louder!!! That’s because the sound of a bell comes out from the side of the bell in all directions, not out of the opening of the bell.

In large part, that is why we ring with those lovely ringing circles. While it is true that ringing with circles is lovely to look at, that is actually not the primary reason we do this. The primary reason is so that the side of the bell will move through the broadest area of physical space, creating the liveliest and most intricate sound we can create.

(Incidentally, since the sound of the bell does NOT come out of the opening at the top of the bell, there is NO reason to ring with the opening of the bell extended forward towards the listeners unless you have a VERY specific sound effect you want in a VERY specific case. Ringing with this kind of “extended” look is not only counter to good sound production but is also EXTREMELY dangerous to the ringing muscles!)

Since the sound of the bell comes from the side of the bell in all directions, it makes good sense to use the repeated note technique wherever possible. The sound of the repeated notes will come from various points in space - that is, four repeated quarter notes in 4/4 time will come from four locations along your circle - rather than just pounding away in one place. If a circle is made for each of the repeated notes, that is a great way to end up with a sound very similar to the sound made by the Salvation Army ringers we see on the street corners at Christmastime!

Repeated Notes and Musical Phrasing:

The science of using the repeated note technique leads logically to the musical reasons for using this technique. Since the sounds of the repeated notes will be originating from different location on the ringing circle, there is a natural, forward-moving, easily-produced musical phrase which results.

Musical phrasing is based fundamentally on the forward motion of the notes. Musical phrases are created from notes much the same way that sentences with meaning are created from words. Without the forward motion and presentation of those notes in a communicative way, we are just playing notes - that is, we are just reciting words rather than expressing sentences with meaning.

The repeated note technique gives an automatic forward motion to these notes, making them communicate something beyond the relentless pounding that is so often heard in handbell choirs’ presentations. While there are certainly musical occasions where you would want to create a relentless, powerful feeling with all the repeated notes played the same way, one circle per note, this would be the exception and not the rule.

(Next time - More on repeated note technique!)