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Home > Articles > Tools of the Trade - the evolution of equipment at Jeffers Handbell Supply
Tools of the Trade - the evolution of equipment at Jeffers Handbell Supply
Handbells have grown from being thought of as an esoteric oddity to accepted musical instruments. The entire handbell industry, including equipment, publishing, and the improved engineering of handbells has developed during the evolution.Jeffers Handbell Supply started in 1975 as a response to a simple question, paraphrased as follows: "Now that we have handbells, what equipment do we need and where do we get it?" That customer, new to handbells, had a legitimate concern.
An experienced handbell director responded, "Oh, the local motorcycle shop has Simichrome, the jeweler has polishing cloths, the Army/Navy store has gloves, the upholsterer has foam, the office supply store has notebooks, and a local musician knows where to get some handbell music."
Not much handbell equipment was available then. That lack of equipment created several opportunities for inventive solutions.
Necessity is the mother of invention. That's the story of handbell equipment generally and notebooks particularly. American office supply manufacturers make notebooks for the American Standard paper size of 8.5" x 11". When a larger piece of music is punched for a regular size notebook, "doneloppitis" occurs. I learned about "doneloppitis" from an ol' Southern boy -- his belly "done lopped" over his belt! Well, the larger music "done lopped" over the notebook. So we made larger notebooks. Creatively, we called them "oversized." In 1980 a customer called and said, "My notebook is broken!" The notebook needed a more durable strap. Overall, the notebook needed to be redesigned for its use with handbell music.
Here was another opportunity for a solution. A local canvas business helped us find nylon webbing we could use for straps. They last longer than the rest of the notebook.
Quite often, bell ringers and directors come up with creative solutions to vexing problems. Walk about a festival at least twice: when the mass ringing area is set up and again when it's being torn down. Look around, and questions come to mind: Why is that notebook propped up on 3 hymnals? Why do you need that bass bell rack? Where did you find that mallet? How does it sound? How do you use this? How do you like that? How did you get the bells and equipment out so fast?
We learned something about risers from those hymnals. Ringers want to see both the music and the director. The understanding that handbell ringing is a visual as well as audio experience defined the criteria for a new product, Sightline Risers. These risers are almost invisible to the audience, let the sound flow through, and remain sturdy.
Any idea can be improved. One company introduced a poly-stacking riser, and later a clear folding riser. It was clear, with more visibility. Another company introduced a lighter, stacking metal riser with a handhold. Others offered additional variations. A school teacher with limited space inspired the lectern. The continued evolution of risers has made life better for all handbell choirs.
On the other hand, some designs last. The metal bell ringer stand is the same as it was in 1970, and made by the same company!
The biggest, longest, most costly, and most ongoing product development project is the design of handbell tables. A lot of ideas have been tried. An average handbell table size is 3' to 6' length and a 30" width. Weight, versatility, and portability are factors. Sanctuaries, not having been designed for handbell choirs of five octaves, propose other challenges. Some have narrow aisles between the front pew and the communion rail. Some have varied levels in choir lofts, etc. Here are more opportunities for solutions. We believe no single combination of flexibility, weight, size and cost in a handbell table exists, but we and others have certainly tried to find one!
The evolution of foam has been driven by the evolution of handbell technique. In the earlier days any foam would do. Table damping led us to an emphasis on softer foam. Thicker foam created a more comfortable playing height on a standard banquet table. Today the trend is toward firmer, thicker foam because of the Martellato technique, and intensely vigorous table damping.
Mallet developments are also driven by innovations in technique. Mallets appeared as a way to ring more bells more rapidly. Some said, "mallets are not for handbells," and indeed, improper malleting is not. But because handbell directors wanted them we explored the possibilities. Today the choices are more diverse than ever, but the evolution of the mallet continues.
What kind of table cover is best? Cotton corduroy is clearly a favorite among bell directors, but is tough to find in fabric stores. Custom Coverings by Don and Elizabeth Norris has made an immense contribution to the handbell world with professional table covers.
As we looked at the criteria and listened to the needs of our customers, we realized that handbell ringers needed better lights to see their music. The light had to illuminate the music without being seen by the audience, because a light that is not shielded blocks audience vision. The light also had to allow easy page turns and operate on batteries when necessary. We researched several designs and in January 1993 found the key in 12 v. Halogen technology. Sitelites are the result of this "opportunity for a solution."
Wrist supports developed as more choirs acquired bass bells and ringers developed repetitive motion problems. Handbell folks owe Doug Benton a "thanks" for his study and research in this area. He and several other directors helped in the creation of supports.
The latest solution for bass bell ringers came from a handbell director who wanted children to ring bass bells. Being the inventive type, she made and patented a fulcrum device that eliminated the weight problem and wrist strain. Importantly this "Rock a Bell" device is lightweight, durable, and flexible.
Handbell equipment continues to evolve as handbell directors and ringers seek solutions and experiment with both sound and technique in their ringing. As handbell directors probe the enormous possibilities for handbells, they will want even more unique solutions. All of us at Jeffers Handbell Supply will continue to listen and respond to your needs with products that contribute to beautiful and enjoyable handbell ringing.
Vibrations, August 1997