Bell trees: composing and arranging

Today’s article will address both composing for bell trees (for trained composers) and creating your own arrangements (for bell tree soloists).

It will help to become familiar with the bell tree keyboard configuration, and choose a layout you intend the soloist to use, either the one I’ve described or the one developed by Barbara Brocker. Regardless of your intent, handbell soloists may develop their own setup for your piece, but you have to start somewhere.

What range of bells to write for: Assume every soloist has access to the range C5-C7, many have G4-G7, and few use bells outside G4-G7 in bell trees. Below G4, the bells are heavy to hang and take up a lot of space. Above G7, the small target surface makes bells hard to hit accurately. In addition, the wider the range of bells, the more necessary it becomes to use multiple mallets in hand, which increases the difficulty of a piece. In Barb Brocker’s setup, the bells below C6 are hard to see, because they’re behind several other strands of bells. Your work will be easier to play (especially by a beginner) if it uses bells C6 to C7 or perhaps G7. In my setup, all the bells are easy to reach, but C6 to C7 is still the easiest to play, because it doesn’t require changing strands. In addition, my setup contains A7 as a spacer. Assume that other soloists may use a handy small bell for that, not necessarily A7.

Key signatures: When I talk about the best keys to write for, bear in mind that all the bells in the range (whatever range the soloist uses) are there and can be played. However, it’s easier to play a scale in a key where the sharp or flat is on the same side of the strand as the natural, so the soloist can alternate hands (not to mention find the bell quickly). Though each chromatic is both a sharp and a flat, it can be in only one place in the strand. Therefore, it must be classified as either a sharp or a flat for purposes of playing bell tree scales. Each chromatic is placed either directly or almost directly behind its related diatonic bell. Barb Brocker’s setup is configured for the key of C major (the easiest to play), or up to 2 sharps (F# C#), or up to 3 flats (Bb Eb Ab) in the key signature. Consider transposing your piece to the keys of C, G, F, D, Bb, or Eb, or their relative natural minors. In general, the fewer the sharps and flats used, the better, because the soloist must change strands for each chromatic bell. Barb’s setup excludes G#4/Ab4 bell because there’s no room for it, and it’s seldom played by soloists.

In my own configuration, the easiest keys to play on bell trees are (in order) C, G, F, Bb, Eb, D, or their relative natural minors. The reason G (one sharp) is better than F (one flat) is because many soloists have G4 in their set, but few own an F4 bell. If you don’t plan to go that low, then G and F are equal in difficulty. The reason D is harder to play (with 2 sharps) than Eb (with 3 flats) is because C# is present, but not directly behind C natural. In my setup, bells below C5 are added to a fourth strand as needed, so it’s possible to include G#4/Ab4, or any other bass bell the soloist owns. Solo sets rarely go below G4.

If you write for other keys, the soloist will probably have to string the bells in that key, substituting sharps and flats for the naturals. If there’s a key change, the soloist may need to string a duplicate set of bells. This sharply limits the number of musicians who will consider your piece. Even if someone has access to a duplicate set of bells, the thought of schlepping it to a concert just to play your work may eliminate it from consideration. For those of us playing table solos, the bell tree set is already a duplicate set of bells. Not many of us have (or are willing to transport) a third set. A special configuration also makes it more difficult to practice or perform in the context of multiple bell tree pieces.

Because all bells in the range are present, you can include accidentals. However, bell trees are usually played without damping. Too many accidentals may create unintended dissonance. This is less of an issue in the high treble bells, which decay quickly. It’s also difficult to play a chromatic scale. Key changes are no problem, provided all key signatures are on the “approved” list above.

Structure: Bell tree pieces must sound good LV (without damping). It’s hard to damp treed up bells, especially at a fast tempo, though it’s sometimes possible to damp selected bells at a break in the musical line. While composing, put the piano pedal down to simulate the LV effect. Avoid scales in favor of open melody lines and pentatonic or broken chord patterns. Pentatonic songs with a few passing tones also work. Because lower bells decay more slowly, use them primarily as a pedal point.

It’s very difficult to read sheet music (or watch a director) while playing bell trees. Bell tree music needs to be easy to memorize, preferably with a predictable structure that can be memorized in sections, and which holds together without the other part(s). Include a clear pulse in the other musical lines for the bell tree soloist to follow by listening.

Tempo: Bell tree pieces are much less subject to the tempo restrictions of table pieces, and a good way for soloists to add faster pieces to their repertoire. Bell trees provide an opportunity for patterns like running eighth notes that are difficult to play from the table. For jumps, especially more than an octave, bear in mind the relative position of the strands, and allow enough time to move between them.

Dynamics: In my experience, bell trees have a greater dynamic range than solo bells on the table, because it’s easier to play accurately at dynamic extremes, to accumulate sound with multiple notes, to mic the bells if necessary, and to change mallets to accommodate the room acoustics. However, like solo bells, bell trees remain more limited in their dynamic range than bell choirs, especially at the forte end. Keep balance issues in mind when writing the accompaniment.

Number of mallets: Bell tree pieces should indicate whether two mallets are required, or four (two in each hand). Four mallets are often needed if two notes sound at the same time a third apart, because they will be on the same side of the bell strand (and therefore at the same hand). Four mallets might also be needed if the full range of notes is used, because the smaller bells (C6 and up) require different mallets than the larger bells. Four mallet pieces are more advanced, especially if mallet intervals shift frequently. If you’re not sure how many mallets are needed, ask an experienced bell tree soloist to play the piece and advise you. I’m always happy to play through pieces and give feedback.

Bell trees within table handbell solos: Bell trees above C6 can be held in one hand and malleted with the other. If writing a bell tree section in a longer piece, always write something that can be hand-held, and allow transition time to “tree it up” and disassemble it. I suggest one measure of accompaniment alone per bell in the strand. If you put the bell tree at the beginning or end of the piece, you need to allow this transition time only once. You won’t need this transition time if the treed bells are outside the range used for the table part and can be preset. Just allow a measure or two to pick up the tree and mallet, then put them down again. A bell tree part at the beginning of a piece might be played in procession to open a concert, a nice effect.

Assume that bell trees using bells below C6, or more than 8 bells, or four mallets, will require a bell tree stand. That’s a limiting factor, because not every soloist owns a stand. Even though I own not only one stand but a second one that stays packed for transport, I don’t always take mine to concerts. There sometimes isn’t enough setup time to assemble the stand and unpack the duplicate bells.

It’s possible to damp an entire hand-held bell tree strand at once, either against the body or by putting it down on the table.

Techniques within difficulty levels: This is my take on what makes a bell tree piece easier or more difficult:

Easy/Beginner – predominately natural notes, two mallets, limited bell range, straightforward stickings (always alternating hands left to right to hit bells on the corresponding side, in stepwise motion or small intervals)
Medium/Intermediate – many sharps/flats, multiple octaves, assembling/disassembling handheld trees on the fly, more complex stickings (e.g. two bells in a row with the same hand, reaching across to the other side of the tree with the opposite hand, large intervals between notes)
Difficult/Advanced – keys outside the recommended list, four mallets (two in each hand), extended use of bells below C6 in Barb Brocker’s setup, assembling/disassembling trees with very limited time during a piece, complicated stickings

Tempo, rhythmic complexity, structure, length, etc. would also affect difficulty level.

Use of other techniques: At present, bell trees are played strictly with mallets (suspended). However, there’s no reason the bells can’t be plucked, or malleted with a stopped sound by touching a hand to the bell while malleting. Remember that the soloist probably isn’t wearing gloves (and may be squeamish about touching metal with bare hands), and extra time would be needed between notes using either of these techniques. Be sure to test your idea. It’s also possible for a soloist to make a single bell sing, then hang it on the bell tree stand. This may require a duplicate bell, or using a bell at the bottom of a strand already hanging on the stand.

Examples: If you want to see some examples of bell tree pieces, look at STEP, where you can search on Bell trees and review scores online. ‘Symphonia on Hyfrydol,’ which has both table and bell tree sections, is arguably the most popular bell tree work. Barb Brocker’s arrangement of ‘Tis a Gift to be Simple’ and Linda Lamb’s arrangement of Sandra Eithun’s ‘I Saw Three Ships‘ are also popular.

What we need: The repertoire is extremely limited, with fewer than 60 pieces published, not all of them stand-alone bell tree solos (e.g. bell tree parts – often optional – in bell choir or solo pieces). As with handbell repertoire in general, we’re overweighted in hymn tunes. We need full length bell tree solos, classical music, original bell works, and concert pieces, especially good concert closers like ‘Symphonia on Hyfrydol.’ Bell tree duets would find takers, as would works that can stand alone without accompaniment.

Arranging your own pieces for bell trees: Advice for handbell soloists: Don’t wait for someone to hand you sheet music labeled “bell tree solo.” We’re pioneering an instrument, and (in my opinion) every single musician who wants to participate in this early stage has an obligation to add to the repertoire. There is more material out there than you could possibly play in a lifetime, if you look for it.

See my article on Transcribing for solo handbells for ideas, including many bell tree examples. Look for material that fits the criteria I suggested to composers. You can take pieces written for solo handbells and try them on bell trees. Some will work, others won’t. Look for pieces written for solo voice, flute, or violin. You can easily adapt them, though you’ll need permission if the material is still under copyright. Try playing a melody by ear on the piano. If you can play all or most of it using only the black keys, that means it’s pentatonic. Transpose the melody to a more friendly key, or look for an arrangement of that tune that you might be able to adapt to bell trees. If you have a score you want to use, inventory the pitch classes to see if there are five or fewer (excluding passing tones.) Even if not pentatonic, scales will work on the highest bells, which decay quickly.

Unless you have the composition skills to write a piano part, look for something that already has an accompaniment, with a solo line you can adapt for bell trees. Few composers are interested in writing an accompaniment for you, unless you offer to pay, or have established relationships. Consider commissioning a piece to add to the repertoire. While it may seem like a big investment, you would then have something to offer other soloists in trade for their original material. You might pay a few hundred dollars for a commission and end up with 6 or 7 great new pieces, after swapping with others.

Look for online composer networks where you can post a request for material, or approach a music school near you to ask whether you can request a piece as a student project. Whenever you meet someone who composes, talk about your instrument and ask whether s/he might be interested in writing for you. I read once that percussionist Evelyn Glennie developed her solo repertoire by writing to every single composer in Britain to ask for material. You have to be willing to stick your neck out and bet on untested composers, who want to have their work performed and may, in turn, bet on you. You can point them to this website for information to help them write for the instrument.


STEP – Solo to ensemble project –

Thanks to Janet Anderson, Barb Brocker, Karen Cmejla, Lindsey Fischer, Nancy Hascall, Linda Lamb, Karen Van Wert, and Kath Wissinger for their input into this article.

Copyright © 2012 Nancy Kirkner,