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Home > Articles > Winter 2005: Handbells and Orchestra

Winter 2005: Handbells and Orchestra
Kevin McChesney
1/27/2012

The Pikes Peak Ringers enjoyed the great honor of premiering my Concerto for Handbell Choir and Orchestra with the Fort Collins Symphony, under the direction of Mr. Wes Kenney, on October 2 and 3, 2004. This piece is virtuoso work, written originally for Ring of Fire, directed by Jason Wells. However, there has been a wide variety of material, from the very simple to the very advanced, developed for handbell choir and orchestra recently, and more handbell choirs - both church and community groups - have played with orchestras in the last two years than the rest of handbells’ fifty year history COMBINED! The Pikes Peak Ringers are playing 10 concerts with 6 different orchestras in the 04-05 season!!

Why is there so much more of this going on than there was? 1) Handbell choirs have improved to a point where we have earned a spot on the concert stage with these professionals. 2) There is strong material being written for this exciting combination. Clearly, not every group will be putting together performances with orchestras right away, but if current trends continue don’t be surprised if your group is asked to perform on the orchestra concert stage at some point. Here are a few considerations when working with orchestra:

1) Amplification - As with other soft instruments such as classical guitar, amplification is necessary. The orchestra often held back working with PPR as did the Boston Pops for Ring of Fire last December, and even at that you feel like you are really blasting away to be heard. Fortunately, more material is being written to help the handbells with balance rather than bury them. Still, we are often faced with parts written by folks who don’t know a lot about handbells, and those parts are difficult to hear. Don’t lose heart, though. With amplification, the bells are heard most of the time. I also HIGHLY recommend doing as much doubling in octaves as you can get away with when playing a part by a “non-handbell” writer.

2) Directing - Orchestras have a long standing tradition of the conductor being slightly ahead of the players. The philosophy is that the conductor can prepare the orchestra for what’s coming. The end result is that there is a slight gap of time between a conductor’s beat and the actual attack from the orchestra. No less an organization than the Boston Pops has this happen consistently. That means that the bells sound like they are ahead - because, of course, our ringers are trained to have the clapper strike at exactly the same time as the beat is given. So be ready to make an adjustment, particularly at the beginning of a piece; you may well have to have the actual strike come a fraction of a second AFTER the conductor’s beat.

3) Professionalism - No one will treat us as professionals unless we treat ourselves as musicians who have earned our place on the concert stage, conducting ourselves with a professional attitude at all times. The energy and devotion we give our music needs to be clearly seen and felt by the other musicians. There are always things to stop for in rehearsals, but we need to be sure we have prepared and are playing our parts so that they never stop for us. If there are going to be people to wait for, let’s make sure it’s us waiting for them, not the other way around.

4) Preparation - Orchestras are used to coming in, reading through, and going home. They are used to a very small amount of rehearsal time, as opposed to the weeks of preparation that handbell players are used to. I stole this from Jason Wells, so he gets credit - but whenever we had a long break in rehearsal where they were working on other pieces that we weren’t involved in, we grabbed the books and went off to another spot just outside the rehearsal room and talked through pieces, air-banded to the CD, or air-banded to my directing and “singing.” I also had the ringers use the times where the conductior was working with other players to be tapping through their parts, particularly tough bell changes and key changes. Might as well use the time.

Playing with an orchestra is an amazing, exciting adventure! For information on material for handbells and orchestra, contact handbell-l or email me at kevinbells@cs.com.


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