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Home > Articles > Winter 2007: Handchimes

Winter 2007: Handchimes
Kevin McChesney


The basic resting place of a chime is the same as that for a bell, resting lightly against the shoulder. Ring the chime by gripping it around the handle (the longer end of tubing, with the clapper pointing upwards) and ringing with the same round motion used to ring a bell.

Damping of chimes is not the same as damping bells, as it requires a relaxed quarter-turn of the chime inward toward the body. This should not be a tense motion and will become natural in just a few tries. The turn can be slight - there is no need to twist the wrist in any uncomfortable fashion. The chime is damped along the side of the tubing, not turned so that the top of the tube touches the shoulder.

Damping is a rhythmic action, and one chime is damped at the same time that the next is rung, in a simultaneous motion. (The same applies to bells.)

There is some debate as to whether gloves are required for ringing handchimes. It makes the most sense to wear gloves when switching from chimes to bells and back again. For a piece played entirely on chimes, the use of gloves would be at the director’s and group’s discretion, though there is no particular reason not to wear gloves when playing chimes.

Virtually all handbell music written today that incorporates handchimes gives handchimes as an option. This means that all of the notes can be played using handbells and the music will be just as effective. This is good news for groups that do not own their own set of handchimes, or have a set that does not have enough octaves of handchimes to cover the notes written.

It is extremely likely that music will continue to be written in this way, with handchimes optional. So those who do not have handchimes are not handicapped in any way, and those who do have handchimes can choose to use them or not.

So the question becomes: If the handchimes are optional, why are they important?

The first reason is for contrast. All instruments have a certain color or tone quality. Much as the french horns or strings in an orchestra are fairly “white” in their color, the whole range of handbells has a certain sameness to its tone. Even the various stopped techniques of bells, while clearly a different color from the rung tone, have a uniform sound throughout the set and even sound quite similar to each other (which is why so much music gives you the option of using mallets, thumb-damp, pluck and even light maretllato to execute staccato notes). The handchimes give a contrasting color against the “white” of the bells. It is similar to an oboe playing to string accompaniment in the orchestra; there is a new and interesting color of expression.

The most common uses of handchimes
for purposes of contrast are:
1) A single line (or only a few notes) played on chimes as other notes are played on the bells.
2) A section of music played entirely on chimes, contrasting with sections played entirely on bells.
3) An entire piece played on handchimes to contrast with the pieces played on bells in a concert worship service. This scenario is usually not indicated specifically on the music. At the director’s and group’s discretion, many bell pieces can be rendered quite effectively and beautifully entirely on chimes.

Another common use of handchimes is to train new ringers. This is most often the case for training children and youth, as the chimes are not as easily damaged as the bells. Also, handchimes are not as expensive as bells, so acquiring a “trainer set” of chimes is an affordable prospect, and chimes are more easily replaced in case of mishap. When training new ringers, it should always be kept in mind that chimes and bells are not the same in every respect. There will be more learning and practice needed when the bells are placed in the ringers’ hands.

To reiterate a very important point, handchime use in bell music is generally optional and all notes can be played using handbells without damaging the musical effect. So there is no reason to eliminate a piece from a group’s repertoire simply because it uses optional handchimes.
A fine way to try out using handchimes is to borrow from a neighboring church or organization. Most groups would gladly loan their chimes for one-time use or for a few rehearsals.
Since the cost of chimes is considerably less than that of bells, purchasing takes less of the red tape of acquiring funds, and it is definitely a worthwhile goal of every handbell choir to obtain a set of handchimes.