Accompanists: other instruments

Most solo handbell music uses piano accompaniment. Using other instruments can add variety to a program, but there are disadvantages as well. When buying or arranging music, check whether the other instrument is optional or an integral part of the piece. The more instrumentalists required to perform a piece, the more difficult it will be to schedule not only performances, but rehearsals. Moreover, some venues (like retirement homes) limit the honorarium they’ll pay for a performance to two musicians. So unless you’re going to play the entire program with, say, an organist or harpist, or your accompanist can play multiple instruments at different points in the program, you’ll have limited opportunities to perform pieces requiring other instruments.

The information presented here is from my own experience and observations. There will be exceptions, but they occur at a very advanced level and infrequently. For example, it’s rare to do a solo concert with numerous other instruments. Such concerts tend to be one-time, special occasions, like a graduation recital, unless all the instrumentalists involved are part of the same church, school, or performance group. Since you may have occasional opportunities to perform with another instrument besides piano, here are my observations about the pros and cons of various instruments. In every case, the other instrument must tune to you, because you have no way of tuning the bells. Published solo repertoire seldom provides accompaniments for other than keyboard instruments. You need to find (or develop) scores that work for that instrument (and instrumentalist), taking into account range, capabilities, and how the instrument sounds.

Piano – Piano can easily overpower solo bells, unless the pianist can play very softly. Since it’s another percussion instrument, mismatches of timing or tuning will be obvious. However, you’re more likely to have access (both for rehearsal and performances) to a piano, a pianist, and accompaniments written for piano, than any other instrument I can think of. I’ve run into situations (like chapels and lobbies of public places) where a piano had to be brought in specifically for the performance. Also, at a handbell event in a school gym, the piano provided is seldom the caliber you’d desire. An instrument owned by an individual, performance hall, or church is more likely to be well-maintained and regularly tuned.

Organ – When you start to pay attention, you’ll be surprised how many venues contain an organ. Not just in churches, organs are also in performance halls (especially former churches), retirement home chapels, and even some schools. You may need specific permission to use the organ, and the request may need to be approved by someone other than your venue contact (e.g. the chaplain or music director). The organ may be there, but it may not have been maintained, and don’t count on a venue bringing someone in to service it specifically for your concert (though they might have a piano tuned at your request).

In a small space, an electronic organ can work quite well. Since it’s less percussive, it lends a different sound quality to the performance. Allow extra time in the warm-up to get used to not hearing the beat crisply. In a large venue, I’m not a fan of solo bells with pipe organ. Besides the ease with which this “king of instruments” can overpower solo bells, it’s difficult to get the timing right. What you hear at the bell table, what the organist hears at the organ bench, and what the audience hears may all be different. If you decide to use it anyway, allow lead time before the first rehearsal for the organist to develop registrations, and ask whether s/he feels comfortable reading from a piano score (improvising pedals) if that’s what you have available. If you play the same piece with multiple organists, ask the first one to note on the score what registrations s/he used, for future organists to refer to.

Harp – It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful combination of instruments than solo handbells with harp. So why do you hear it so rarely? There are two kinds of harp you’re likely to encounter: pedal and lever harps. A pedal harp is a classical concert instrument. Just like a full solo handbell setup, a harp is a big hassle to transport, so the harpist is unlikely to agree to play just a single piece (and certainly not for free – good harpists are in demand for weddings and other events). You may need to perform most or all of the concert with harp accompaniment to justify the harpist’s fee, and you may have to pay for cartage (transport). All the transportation issues you both have in performing together need to be solved for every rehearsal. You may need to choose between taking all your handbell equipment to the harpist’s studio (if there’s room) or paying the harpist to bring the harp to you. If your home studio, like mine, lacks level access for a dolly, forget it.

If you succeed in solving logistical problems, you’ll find a pedal harp can handle more music than a lever harp. A lever harp is a folk instrument, generally smaller than a pedal harp. The harpist sets the key by choosing lever positions on each string, while a pedal harpist changes keys with foot pedals. This means that, unlike a pedal harpist, a lever harpist can’t play accidentals; her hands are too busy on the strings to change levers. Key changes on a lever harp are possible, but must be carefully planned, and there must be enough time for the harpist to change the lever positions. However, if you have a piece without key changes or accidentals, the lever harpist can often set the levers to accommodate whatever key works well for you at the bell table. This is useful if you’ve already learned the piece with piano accompaniment. Neither a pedal harp nor a lever harp can play chromatic scales.

A cross-strung harp has two sets of strings, one for the diatonic (natural) notes and one for the semitones (sharps/flats) of the chromatic scale. To save weight, the lower octave may be omitted. I’ve never seen one, much less performed with one, so that’s all I can tell you.

Harps come in various sizes with differing numbers of octaves, something to consider when choosing repertoire. If you’re using music not arranged for harp, guitar chords are more useful than a piano part, which is probably too thick for the harpist to implement. She’ll have to spend time deleting notes from the piano part to play it, while she can improvise an accompaniment from guitar chords. A pianist may also be able to improvise from a score with guitar chords, which would provide more flexibility in playing the piece another time.

Guitar – I’ve never performed with guitar and have rarely seen it accompany solo handbells. It seems like it would have many of the advantages of harp accompaniment without the transport issues. Guitarists often improvise music from “fake” books, which give the outline of a melody and the chords used to accompany it. Fake books are available for a wide variety of repertoire. Guitar accompaniment is an area ripe for exploration.

Other instruments – You may see handbell solos with parts for flute, cello, violin, voice, or a generic C instrument. A C instrument is one that can play with other C instruments, like piano or handbells. (As an aside, if you find a score that calls for a generic C instrument, playing it on solo handbells may be an option.) Contrast that with horn or clarinet, which are B flat instruments. You can’t combine C and B flat instruments without transposing the score for someone. Transposition isn’t particularly difficult, but not all instrumentalists can transpose a score while sight-reading. In general, you need to consider the other instrumentalist’s skill and comfort level with improvisation, accompaniment, and sight-reading. S/he may be able to play a piece over time, just not at the first reading.

The instruments mentioned here are more like other solo instruments than accompaniment, so you may still need piano to flesh out the piece. Cello is a particularly lovely instrument to combine with solo bells, because the deep mellow tones perfectly complement the higher pitched, metallic sound of bells.

Some handbell solos can be backed by a handbell or chime choir instead of a keyboard instrument. It’s best to play chimes on either the solo or the backing part, to get a contrast of sound. Handbell solos sometimes include small percussion, played either by the soloist or by someone else. It’s possible, but rare, for a handbell soloist to play with a large group like an orchestra or chorale. Amplification is essential.

It can take a lot of time to develop repertoire for a full program with another instrumentalist. An approach that has worked well for me is an annual concert with a harpist friend, where the bulk of the concert is her harp studio student recital. She and I play 4 or 5 pieces on harp and handbells. We develop many of our own arrangements, since there’s limited published music for other instrumental accompaniments.

Early in my solo career, when I needed performing experience but didn’t have enough material for a concert, I asked various friends who played other instruments to share a program with me at retirement homes. We would alternate pieces, which provided variety and allowed me ample time to reset the bell table and summon courage to tackle the next piece. This is an excellent way to get performing experience.

Here are examples of published repertoire for solo handbells with other instruments. This is neither a complete list nor an endorsement, since I’m not familiar with most of these, but will give you an idea of what’s available. You can search in the music selection assistants of sites like Jeffers ( to find others.

AGEHR Publishing:
Celtic Farewell by Lamb, optional flute (I play the solo bell part on bell trees)

Above the Line:
Amazing Grace arranged Hascall, optional cello
Arioso by Bach, arranged Hascall, optional cello
Greensleeves arranged Hascall, cello or C instrument (not optional)
Let All Mortal Flesh arranged Hascall, optional cello

From the Top:
Contemplation by Durbin, lever/pedal harp accompaniment
Jehová, Señor de los Cielos arranged Smith/Patty, optional vocal solo and guitar accompaniment

The Golden Dance:
Coventry Carol arranged Sharik/Holzinger, lever or cross-strung harp accompaniment

Laurendale Associates:
My Heart Rejoices by Croom, optional cello and windchimes

National Music Publishers:
Because by D’Hardelot, arranged Stephenson, organ accompaniment
Great is Thy Faithfulness by Runyan, arranged Childers, flute and piano
In Joseph’s Lovely Garden arranged Jansen, organ accompaniment
Toccata by Herbek, organ accompaniment
Wondrous Love arranged Gumma, piano and optional guitar

H’ing Publishing:
Jasmine arranged Sierra Tse, cello (not optional)

Many, many thanks to all the accompanists and instrumentalists I’ve worked with. I’d especially like to thank Janet Anderson, my regular accompanist, for all I’ve learned from her, and for her input into these articles.

Copyright © 2012 Nancy Kirkner,