Starting, ending, and transitions

I once read that a good sermon consists of a good beginning and a good ending, as close together as possible. While audiences don’t often nod off during handbell solos, we can engage them with a variety of openings and closings that enhance both the musical and the visual effect. Instead of starting and ending every piece with bells at the shoulder, wouldn’t it be more interesting to add some variety to your concert? Which would you rather watch: someone fidgeting during the piano introduction, or a soloist who approaches the table with confidence, making every move count? Would you rather see a soloist run down the table and snatch up bells for the next section, then stand idle until the piano catches up, or watch her move gracefully through the transition at her leisure?

Solo handbell works are often compared to a dance, and we can learn from how dancers use their time on stage. Every movement contributes to the overall effect, including entrances, exits, and repositioning. Dancers never let good music go to waste; they use every second to weave their spell over us. We can apply these principles to add polish and stage presence to our solo handbell performance. In doing so, we need to let go of certain habits formed in bell choirs, such as picking up bells at the earliest opportunity, whether on the director’s cue or in anticipation of a key change. Other musicians don’t typically pick up their instruments until shortly before they play.

Here are some suggestions for opening a piece:

• Pick up the bells toward the end of the piano introduction. You can even set up initial pairs during a long introduction.
• Hold a single bell at your waist, resting upright with the other hand cradling the casting.
• Walk up to the table or bell tree during the introduction, or at the end of a long introduction.
• Start a piece with a chord, arpeggio, flourish, backswing, or singing bell before starting the melody.
• Start a cappella, from the table or on a bell tree, and have the accompanist come in later.
• If starting with the piano, lift the bell only as high as needed to ring, not all the way to the shoulder.
• Ring a simple change ringing pattern.
• Play small percussion, like a Japanese bell tree or claves.

I like to step into the first note, making a slightly larger motion than usual, but taking care not to give the note more weight than called for. If I do want to hold bells during the introduction, I stay relaxed by bending my knees, sinking back into my heels, dropping my shoulders, and breathing normally. Before I even get to this point, I make sure I really am ready to start: I’ve checked the bells on the table and the ones I’m picking up, I’m standing where I belong, my glasses are set firmly on my nose, my clothing, hair, and jewelry are in place, etc. Fussing with these details during the introduction conveys discomfort. Attend to your grooming offstage and check the bells before signaling the accompanist to start. Fill the introduction time by listening to the piano and imagining the opening notes you’re about to play. Focus on the exit sign at the back of the room to give your eyes something to do; that keeps you looking toward the audience without actually staring at them. Relax your face into a slight smile by parting your lips and teeth. It’s natural to be nervous, but it’s best to hide it.

When ringing a bell tree piece, lift your mallets during the measure before you play, ending the motion with your prep stroke during the pickup note. Don’t stand there for several measures poised to attack the bells; they’re not going anywhere!

If working with a recorded accompaniment (which I recommend for practice but not live performance), include cue notes if you’re supposed to start right with the accompaniment. These might be beeps (or the opening or tonic note) repeated as a quarter note at tempo, with the number of beats in the measure.

Here are some suggestions for closing a piece:

• Use a technique like tower swing, martellato, gyro, vibrato, table land damp, or rolled chord.
• Make a graceful motion with the bell, either with lateral movement or descending toward the table.
• Hand damp by lifting your free hand to meet the descending bell.
• Finger damp a small bell.
• Ring a triad, set up in Shelley or with all three bells in one hand. Keep dynamics in line with how the piece is supposed to end. To ring a triad softly, ring low behind the table, toward the floor, then lift the bells. That will minimize the sound that reaches the audience.
• Mallet a suspended bell.
• If the final note is short, end with a small circle. If it’s long, end with a big slow circle. Use all the time during the final note, including the piano ending.
• Set the bell on the table and end with your hands at your sides.
• Turn your body at an angle and ring the last note. You might even end the piece with your back to the audience, if appropriate to the music.
• Bow your head.
• Come out from behind the table to ring the final notes. I once did this in a large auditorium full of people who released a collective “Ahhhh” as I moved forward.

Of course, some of the ideas for opening a piece might be used at the close, and vice versa. Always clearly communicate that the piece has ended, perhaps by putting the bells down or taking a step back, so the audience knows when to applaud.


During practice, get a clear sense of how much time you have to get from one section of a piece to the next, and use all of it. Walk slowly and calmly to another part of the table, and pick up the next bells in a leisurely “just in time” fashion. The last motion of picking up the bells should position you for your entrance. Move in time with the beat, which is visually appealing and keeps you “in the music.” If you need to reset bells, the piano interlude is a great opportunity. As I practice this and listen to what’s happening in the music, it reassures me that I have enough time to complete my preparation. If there isn’t enough time for a smooth transition, you may need to ask your accompanist to repeat measures or add a ritard to give you time. These need to make musical sense, not just stall for time.

Think about the mood of the music in planning transitions, whether long or short. The fastest way to ruin a calm and quiet whole note is to frantically rearrange bells on the table. Rework your choreography to move the bells some other time. Use that whole note to look up and connect with your audience, and to convey the full emotion of that moment.

During a long solo passage by the piano accompanist, shift the audience’s focus toward that instrument. I like to turn toward the piano and signal with my gaze that the bells will be idle for a bit. You can leave bells on the table, or hold them to signal that you’re coming back in later. If your hands are empty, practice standing with your hands at your side to avoid the “fig leaf” position (hands clasped in front). I usually leave bells on the table, unless the next passage is six-in-hand. Then I’ll stand with bells up to give the audience a good look at them while my hands are still.

Whatever you do to open or close a piece (or a section) should fit with the music and other movements. Be especially careful with poses; they should look relaxed and natural. Finish the musical and physical gesture, then move on. Unless you’re trying to invoke the Crucifixion, avoid movements like circling outward with both arms. That looks especially awkward when your jacket gapes open. Always test poses with a video camera and a brutally honest friend to check whether you’re communicating the desired effect, or whether you just look, well….. silly. Consider the emotion you want the audience to feel: joy, sorrow, triumph, awe, gratitude, peace.

Copyright © 2011 Nancy Kirkner,