Movement and dynamics

In this article, you can read about:

• Picking up bells faster,
• Avoiding the Dreaded Banana,
• Creating basic dynamic effects,
• Increasing your range of motion,
• Cringe-worthy movement mistakes, and
• A secret.

I talked in the Footwork article about moving your feet, not standing in one place as you would in a bell choir. Another bell choir habit that soloists need to break is the timing of lifting vs. ringing bells. In a bell choir, the bells live in your hands, except during bell changes, and rest against your shoulder. So bell choir ringers tend to start the ringing stroke from the shoulder. In solo ringing, the bells live on the table, and need to be rung from the table. Instead of lifting the bell toward the shoulder and then ringing it (two motions), learn to ring the bell as you lift it (one motion).

Here’s an exercise to practice this. Place a small bell on the padded bell table, with the handle pointing toward you. Pinch the handle between the tips of your index and middle fingers, on the handle block just under the handguard. Rest the heel of your hand on base of the handle. Pull the bell up with your fingertips to a vertical position, and simultaneously press down with your palm on the handle. (Don’t scrape the corduroy with the mouth of the bell; you want to avoid extraneous noise.) The bell should ring as it’s coming to vertical. If it doesn’t, try adjusting the springs to a looser tension, and/or apply more pressure with your palm. As soon as the clapper sounds, stop and check the bell position. The end of the handle should still touch the table.

The handle should form an angle to the table of between 45 and 90 degrees, that is, more vertical than horizontal. You want to get the casting vertical as soon as possible, since “scooping” with a horizontal motion makes the bells hard to hear. (The sound goes into the foam and up to the ceiling, not out to the audience.) You can test this premise by going to hear a bell choir ringing live. Look for a “scooper,” then listen for that person’s notes. They will tend to drop out; you can see the person ring, but you can’t hear the bells.

In ringing solo pieces, the handle of the bell won’t always touch the table as you engage the clapper, but you want it to be close. This allows the majority of the note value to sound while the bell is on the way up, not while you’re replacing it on the table. It improves the sound and ultimately frees you to ring faster. Use a smooth upward stroke, without jerking. Some people think of this as catching the clapper in the casting on the way up, or cushioning a fragile object. Others think of the clapper “kissing” the casting: it lightly touches and quickly rebounds.

Once this is working reliably, don’t stop when the bell rings. Continue the circle back toward either your shoulder or the table. Do make a circle and not what I call the Dreaded Banana shape (where the bell returns to the table on the same trajectory as it came up). Make a single circle at uniform speed for the whole value of the note. (Double circles create a Doppler effect.) Long notes get bigger and/or slower circles and short notes get smaller and/or faster circles. Use finger damping to fine-tune the precision of the note value, not as a substitute for making full circles. Circles create a mesmerizing flowing effect, as well as consistency between what the audience hears and what it sees. I work on my circles in other exercises that I plan to post when I can video them for you.

If you’re using noticeable (either audible or visible) force to engage the clapper, loosen the spring tension. The dominant sound should be the resonance of the casting, not the percussiveness of the clapper.

You can refine the ringing motion by inserting more of your fingers under the handle (more like the standard ringing grip) and squeezing your middle and ring fingers against the handle to engage the clapper. As you lower the bell to the table, release those fingers before the bell hits the table. You can release the bell faster when holding it just between your fingertips.

Dynamics in bell ringing are a result not just of power, but of the height and extension of your circles. You have a much bigger window for your bell stroke than you probably use. Remember that the padded table and your body absorb sound. To ring softly, keep the bell close to your body, or ring it low. I sometimes ring behind the table if I really need to muffle a bell, unless it will make it hard for my accompanist to follow me. (She has many fine qualities, but lacks X-ray vision.) If I have to ring higher than I’d like, I may ring the bell more horizontally to diminish the sound. Choir ringers have the option to place the fifth finger inside the bell handle. That diminishes the force behind your ringing stroke, and will make it quieter. I’ve heard people say “the pinky acts as a brake,” but you shouldn’t feel any weight against that finger. It’s more a case of ringing with less than the full strength of your hand.

To make a note loud, ring it higher, and with more arm extension. The relative height of the motion (circles) both creates and visually communicates the dynamics. It’s hard to ring forte with a pure tone if the bells stay close to the table. I use multiple bell techniques more than weaving, so I can raise the bells as high as necessary. However, if you ring a bell too high, maybe overhead, you have less arm strength behind it, and may find the volume diminishing. It also looks strange. Experiment with different ringing heights with someone listening, to get a sense of where the maximum volume occurs.

Percussionists press their feet into the floor for loud notes, using gravity instead of force. (I’ve heard that’s how sopranos hit the high notes.) This can be hard to do while moving, but you might keep it in mind for something like the end of a crescendo, or ringing six-in-hand. Regardless of the dynamic, I adjust the “give” in my knees depending on whether I want to ring with power, or cushion the sound.

Use your whole body to drive the ringing stroke, not just your arms. Experiment with this: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and one foot slightly in front of the other. Ring one bell, and follow through with your entire body, allowing your heels to leave the floor. See how far forward you can reach on the follow-through without losing your balance. Try this a few times, then end the circle by sinking back into your heels, with your knees bent. See how great a range of motion you can achieve, from reaching out, to sinking back. This exaggerated movement is more than you want to use while ringing, especially in a bell choir where you’ll call undue attention to yourself. However, it gives you an idea of what’s available to you in dynamic range. You may want to lean into a tenuto, or dissonance, or syncopation.

A pianist uses fingers, hands, wrist movement, and arm strength as needed to create dynamics. Some find this a helpful concept on bells. Think about playing softly with your fingers or loudly with your whole body behind the bell.

Besides the overall effect that any kind of movement has on your solo, there’s the logistical matter of getting the bell to the place where it creates the sound you seek. It’s not just a case of getting the bell to the best place horizontally (on the table). Consider its vertical trajectory as well. If you’re ringing a forte passage, for example, and you want to ring it high, you need a plan for getting the bells up. Consider which techniques (four-in-hand? six-in-hand? bell tree?) will get the bells there in the time available. If you have a forte passage followed by subito piano, maybe you need the subito piano bell in a different hand (so you can ring it lower) than the last forte bell. Or maybe not, if there’s enough time to lower the bell before the subito piano. As you’re shaping the musical line, maybe you want the strikepoint (and circle height) of each bell to carve the same pattern as the note dynamics.

Sometimes you see extraneous movement in bell performances: bouncing up and down, head tossing, swaying, ringing wildly to the sides, acrobatics, and the like. Personally, I find this distracting, especially when the movement clashes with the music. Move like a dancer, not as though you have ants in your pants, or something to prove. The goal of all movement is to enhance the music, not draw attention to the musician.

Another motion to avoid is frequent, obvious passing. I’ll let you in on a secret: I choreograph to minimize the passing required of bells between hands. I feel that passes between ringers, such as in a duet or quartet, can enhance the music if well-executed, but passing a bell to oneself lacks that element of visual interest. It especially detracts from the presentation if, like so many of us, you might be considered what I‘ll call “wide.” That shiny bell bisecting you horizontally isn’t attractive, and the darker the clothing, the worse it looks. If you need to pass a bell, do it as low as possible in the ringing stroke, without interrupting the circle. The best time to pass a bell is on a repeated note, when you can ring it in one hand the first time and the other hand the second time, or on a long note. If I want to pass a bell at a climax in the music, I’ll sometimes make the movement itself part of the dramatic effect, passing the bell in a high arc overhead. Like all dramatic effects, though, this needs to be used sparingly, perhaps only once in a concert.

You can get help with movement from numerous sources. I take classical ballet lessons, but modern dance would be just as beneficial. I’ve heard of percussionists studying salsa to help with their footwork, and some musicians swear by Feldenkrais. You might also look into the Alexander technique. Somewhere near you there’s a movement class that will enhance your solo ringing in ways you can’t even imagine.

Copyright © 2012 Nancy Kirkner,