How I approach choreographing a piece

Some soloists approach choreographing and learning a piece differently than I do, and you may prefer their method, or another way you discover. This is what works for me. Most of my repertoire isn’t written for solo handbells; my accompanist and I adapt it from other instruments. I wrote about this in Transcribing for solo handbells. Before I start the choreography, I have some sort of score, either purchased, downloaded, or created in Sibelius. I also run that arrangement by my accompanist for her input before I invest any time in it. While I’m working out the choreography for a piece, I devote most of each practice session to it until it’s fully choreographed. For that reason, I develop choreography for only one piece at a time.

The first and most important step is to determine how I want the piece to sound. I search YouTube and iTunes for highly accomplished musicians (some famous, some not) playing the piece. Often I’ll purchase the one I like best from iTunes, so I can burn a CD and play it in my car. That’s especially helpful if I’m trying to memorize a piece in a short time; playing it repeatedly as background music helps me learn it. (Choir ringers, you can do the same thing. See the Links page for a resource that will burn CDs of handbell publisher demo recordings for you. You can also find sound files online at Jeffers.)

I take the score to the piano and play the bell line (or the line that I intend to make the bell line). I look for awkward leaps and think about which hand I need free for each. I look for repeated notes and consider which might make the best constants. I mark sections that are identical, or nearly identical. I might play with a metronome to check the rhythms and tempo. The purpose of the piano work is to start developing an understanding of how the piece might work on bells, mechanically, and how it should sound. The longer I work with a piece, the more ingrained the sound becomes in my mind, and it starts to sound right even if it isn’t. The piano is the best place to identify the problem spots and techniques to brush up on (like trills), envision special effects, and start thinking about interpretation. It’s also a great way to work on a piece (dynamics, for example) when you don’t have access to the bells, or don’t want to spend more time at the tables.

At this point, I’ll input the bell part into Sibelius software if I can legally do that (for example, public domain music). I enlarge the staff size to make the part easier to read at a distance, and easier to scribble on. If the music isn’t in the public domain, and if I don’t have the copyright holder’s permission yet to transcribe it, I’ll work from the published score.

At the bell table, I start from the first measure, and just ring a couple of measures. If it seems fine, I’ll note the starting hand and anything else I want to remember, like constants, then move on to the next measures.

If it doesn’t flow smoothly, I’ll try starting the piece with the other hand. I’ll also experiment with displacing the lowest bell, to make it easier to reach with my right hand. As I work through the choreography, I’ll experiment with techniques available to me, as discussed in other articles. The more skills mastered, the more likely a good solution will appear. Sometimes, the solution may be to transpose the piece to a different key, or up an octave. If there are multiple solutions, I choose the final one based on what will produce the most musical result with the least downside (risk of clashing bells, sequences that are hard to remember or execute, too many duplicate bells, changing the character of the music, etc.).

It helps to know your biases. I tend to displace bells and use T4ih as the first and second line of attack. Some people mostly weave, or use a lot of duplicate bells. They’re all legitimate techniques, and they all can get you into trouble. Once I had way too many displaced bells in the third row; the table looked totally random. I wrote myself a note, “try something else. Sh+/-?” Just writing that note helped me start down a different path toward law and order, even though the solution didn’t include Shelley plus or minus.

Sometimes I get stuck and have to move on to another piece, then try again the next day. I’ve had pieces that have taken weeks to puzzle out. Often a single elegant solution resolves two problems. For example, there may be an awkward bell tabling, and an awkward pickup when that bell is next needed, and displacing the bell solves both problems. I believe that isn’t a coincidence, but reflects the structure of the music. Sometimes it helps to look on YouTube for a handbell soloist playing the same or a similar piece, or online for a choreographed score, to see how someone else solved that particular problem. Sometimes I like their version; sometimes I notice a problem that leads me in a different direction.

After I work on the first section, I’ll try the same choreography whenever that section reoccurs, whether in the same voice or in another octave. There’s often a minor twist, especially in pieces adapted from vocal solos, where a syllable may be added or dropped. I want to be sure the choreography of the first part will work with the minor adjustments needed for these recapitulations. What I learn from the recapitulation may alter how I present the exposition.

It can be tiring to work in the low treble or bass. I’ll sometimes work an octave higher, just until I figure out the best approach. In doing this, I keep in mind the limitations of the lower bells, for example my four-in-hand range of capabilities, and the different damping techniques required.

I’ll continue working through the piece, solving problems as they arise. I don’t attempt to memorize any of it until I’ve choreographed all of it. Sometimes a solution requires a change to an earlier measure, like a setup or displacement (or even scrapping everything and starting over). Those actions to accommodate a later measure are part of the muscle memory needed in the earlier measure. If the two measures are far apart, I’ll write “for [measure number]” next to the setup, so I remember why it’s there. I also identify presets needed, and write them at the top of the music as I discover them.

At this point, I have a sense of whether the piece is going to work for me on solo bells, and whether I’m willing to invest the time in developing it, or if my time is better spent on another piece. If I don’t yet have permission to perform it in public on solo bells, I’ll email the copyright holder and ask. I’ll wait for their response before investing much more time in the piece. Often they’ll reply within a day or two, and certainly within two weeks. I’ll also look for the words, if the piece has any, and print those out. If the piece is public domain, I’ll start inputting the piano part into Sibelius.

Some soloists work outward from the most difficult section, so the hardest measures are as easy as possible to play musically. They work backward to the beginning to get the bells where they need them (on the table or in the correct hands) for those problem measures. I can see the merit in that. I find that working from beginning to end helps me identify where the problem sections are; there may be more than one, or the whole piece may be straightforward. Working out the easier measures first provides a baseline for accommodating the harder sections. I don’t want to risk making the entire piece more difficult than necessary to accommodate the rough spots, real or imagined. Working in sections gives me more flexibility as I approach the problem areas. For example, maybe I could pass a bell before or during the problem section to get it into the correct hand, or reset during a piano interlude. I may not need major changes in the easy part to set up for the hard part.

Once I have the whole piece choreographed, I start to memorize it in sections. I’ve written in Memorization and in Practicing about the techniques I use. I’ll play it as slowly as necessary to play it correctly, using a metronome at times. I may discover minor changes to the choreography as I’m learning the piece, and weigh the merits of making the change with the possible risks (is it a major change? are there a lot of changes to learn? is it too close to the performance date? ) . Sometimes the choreography change will solve a significant problem (like a consistently late note) and be easy to remember. Other times, the remedy is higher risk than the problem.

While I’m learning the piece, I’ll play the accompaniment track (if I have one) or demo recording or whatever sound file I have. I sing my part as I listen to the recording and follow the full score. This helps me understand how my part fits with the accompaniment.

When I have a section ready, I’ll ask my accompanist/coach to listen, even though I’m still playing slower than performance tempo and may even be using sheet music. It’s helpful to get her feedback on where I may have timing problems, rhythmic or interpretive errors, or misplaced emphasis, before they become habits. We start talking about phrasing and dynamics, the style of the piece, and the quality of sound we want to achieve. We’ll explore crispness of damping vs. bleed-over, percussiveness vs. legato, stretching the tempo, emphasis, and other elements of musicality.

Those discussions continue as we rehearse the piece together and continue to experiment. Having this input early in my learning process makes it easier to solidify. The most recent concert we performed, of music by British composers, was the first concert where we worked together on all the pieces from the very beginning. I felt that having Janet’s input early in the process made a significant difference in the quality of the overall performance. Instead of fixing problems that had become ingrained in my ringing, we worked together on nuances. By the time I got on stage, all the little details had been absorbed into the larger flow of each piece.

Next time, I’ll walk you through an example of choreographing a piece.

Copyright © 2012 Nancy Kirkner,