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Home > Articles > Using Handbell Trees During Covid-19

Using Handbell Trees During Covid-19
Connie Nicholson

     So here we are, all trying to figure out how to deal with keeping our distance and still have music at places such as church services, funerals, weddings and small gatherings.  Utilizing handbell trees for such venues is a perfect solution.  It doesn’t require a group, it can be placed anywhere that is deemed safe in a room, and it is compact.  You also don’t share bells, foam, tablecloths, music, folders, or tables.  By the way, the reasons just stated are also why handbell trees can be useful, even when we don’t have an epidemic!  So what’s stopping you from getting started?

     Some of you may have taken a handbell tree class at a festival, but never got around to trying it, or maybe you’ve never even taken a class.  Let me help you get started.

     For those of you who are trying to remember what you were taught in a class or for those do it yourself kind of ringers, you can start with Handbell Musicians of America.  HMA has an E-Chat Video with Barb Brocker on the members notes and chats portion of their web page.  There is also a nice booklet complied by Barb on HMA that is an article on belltrees in the Resource Library under the faith-based portion for members.  Another helpful source is the belltree repository, developed by Karen Van Wert, which has files and videos all dealing with belltrees.  I recommend looking at her “start here-navigate the repository” as an easy way to learn and begin.  (The link is listed below).  Both resources provide a variety of information, such as: how to string the bells, belltree stands, bell poles, use of pentatonic notes, hymns, clips, mallets and creative uses for belltrees, just to name a few.  Even though there are a variety of ways to string the bells, one way that many ringers use is outlined in Barbara Brocker’s, A Bell Tree “Keyboard” Manual.  It is very helpful in learning her style of ringing belltrees, from the basics to advance.

      Now you know how to get started, what do you play?  There is music specifically written for handbell trees, so you can always go that route.  But have you ever thought about adapting table solos to handbell trees?  I do it all the time, since I have a lot of music for solo ringing.  Let me help you with this process.

     First of all, belltrees don’t generally damp (just a note once in a while) so you have to use your ears on whether the LV is too much.  Letting the bells vibrate doesn’t really bother me, but for some ringers it might.  Remember that the LV won’t sound as “messy” to the audience, since they are further away from the bells, but some songs do lend themselves better for LV than others.  Also, the higher bells (6-7 octaves) don’t sustain as long as the 5’s, so looking at where most of the notes are located can play a factor.

     I look at the key signature, as playing in the key of C is ideal. Playing in other keys shouldn’t be a deterrent, especially if it’s just one or two sharps or flats, but adding more sharps and flats will add to the difficulty of the piece.  Changing keys in a piece usually isn’t a problem either, especially if there is a transition with the accompaniment, so dissonant bells can be damped.  It is best to keep accidentals at a minimum, as the sound between accidentals and naturals with the LV, can be unpleasant, unless there is time to damp.  And, songs that use pentatonic notes will sound exquisite on handbell trees and will be enjoyed by the listener

     As with any piece, time signatures without complicated meters will be easier to play.  It is fine to have syncopation and some complicated rhythm, just remember that this also adds to the difficulty and you can lose some of the articulation with the LV.

     The ringing patterns are key with adapting to belltrees.  Repeated patterns and notes that go up and down the scale or have logical jumps, especially between the different strands of bells are important determinants.  Generally if it feels awkward for me to play, then it will look awkward.  It’s fine to go back and forth between octaves, but if it happens constantly, it may not be a piece you should play on handbell trees.

     The speed of the piece can also make a difference.  You can actually play faster on a belltree then on a table if it’s on one strand, however, it is slower than a table solo if you are having to move back and forth quickly and frequently between octaves.  So, pay attention to the patterns and transitions between the notes to decide if the piece is playable for a handbell tree

     I also look at the style of the table solo.  A lyrical piece will sound lovely on a belltree, while a percussive piece, generally, will not.

     So that’s basically what I look for to adapt music to handbell trees.  If you have a table solo you really like, and it doesn’t fit with my suggestions, I would encourage you to still try it.  One size doesn’t fit all, so trying is the best way to know whether it works.  The more familiar you are with your bell set up on your “strands”, the easier and quicker you will learn a piece.  People love to see and hear the belltrees, as the difference in the visual (vertical) and sound (LV) is different than solo ringing.  A very simple song can sound meditative, joyful, or fill the void that someone’s soul needs during these uncertain times.  I have a list on Karen Van Wert’s belltree repository of my personal table solo pieces that I feel adapt well to belltrees in the resource lists.  Plus I have a level of difficulty listed, so ringers can see why I rated my choices easy, medium or difficult.  Click here to access the repository.

     So, dust off those belltree stands, grab your mallets and use this time as an opportunity to grow in your ringing skills and bring joy to others with the art of handbell trees!