Getting started as a soloist – skills

Before you launch into learning your first solo piece, take the time to develop good technique. Plan to spend time on drills at every practice session; you want to form good habits from the beginning. The basic skills you’ll need immediately are changing bells, table damping, weaving, four-in-hand (ring and knock), Shelley, and an understanding of which hand to use to start a passage. If you don’t know how to do some of them, maybe you’re not ready to start solo ringing. You would be better off finding a quartet to ring with; small ensemble experience is an ideal way to transition from choir ringing to solo ringing.

I’m taking for granted that you do have bell choir experience, already know how to ring handbells, and can read music fluently, at least in treble clef. It would be difficult, though not impossible, to become a handbell soloist without any prior background in the instrument.

As you progress in solo ringing, I suggest learning techniques in the following order:

Displacement and presets
Fast pickups
Combo ring and/or alternate Shelley
Finger damping
Traveling four-in-hand (T4ih)
4ih consecutively with bells in the same hand
Shelley/4ih plus and minus, to secondary position
Bell trees (single tree)
Reverse grips
Shelley/4ih plus and minus, to primary position
Six-in-hand – interlocked
Bell trees (multiple trees) – unless you plan to specialize, in which case you would start much sooner
Six-in-hand – cluster
Traveling six-in-hand

Along the way, learn these skills when you find you need them:

Signaling to an accompanist
Table land damp
4ih with larger bells (whatever range you choose – I worked my way down to B4, and don’t plan to go any lower)

Learning skills in the order listed will allow you to choreograph increasingly difficult pieces of music, without having to work around common problems or abandon a piece as impossible. As you learn each skill, also learn its notation and how to apply it. Work it into one piece in a very small way, perhaps doing it only once, someplace where it isn’t absolutely essential. For example, try T4ih with some small bells in a couple of measures even if you have time to weave them. Once you subject the skill to performance pressure, you can use it more in future pieces. You want every experience to build confidence in your ability to use the new technique.

A key skill to work on from the very beginning is memorization. I know you can memorize, because if I asked you to recite the alphabet or sing your favorite Christmas carol, you could. If you start out memorizing when your solo pieces are relatively easy, you build the skill of memorization along with everything else. That frees you to play music (not just notes on a page) and to engage your listeners, and is much more beautiful to watch. I plan to write in this blog about how to memorize.

To learn choreography, learn a published handbell solo using the choreography provided. As an exercise, come up with 1 or 2 different ways you might approach sections of the same piece. For example, if there’s a lot of weaving, see if displacement or T4ih works better. If there’s an LV passage, see if you can play it on a bell tree. If your approach works better without compromising musicality, incorporate it into the piece. Over time, this will build your skill in choreography, and you can move on to choreographing published bells solos to fit your style. I’ll write more about choreography principles.

If you don’t already fluently read intervals, ledger lines, bass clef, and alto clef, add them to your list of what you’ll eventually need to learn, in that order. Like any musician, you’ll also need to work on rhythm, movement, dynamics, phrasing, inflection, tone color, and other elements of musical expression. Once you own your own bells, you’ll need to learn to adjust, voice, and maintain them. All those techniques you learned? You have to do them faster.

Still thinking of doing this without a teacher?

Copyright © 2011 Nancy Kirkner,