Like bells, tables are a long-term purchase decision, so worth shopping around for. The main issues to consider are:
• Generic or specialized
• Length – both individual table length and total feet
If changing from the type of table you currently use, buy a single table and test it before converting your whole setup. In particular, mart and mallet larger bells on it, have several ringers set it up and take it down, and load it in a car trunk. Whatever table choices you make, lock in your decision before having custom table covers made. While you can probably have covers made to fit any configuration, most covers won’t adapt to table changes, such as width or height.
Generic vs. specialized: The advantages of generic tables, like those you might buy at Jeffers, Sam’s Club, or other stores, are lower cost, local availability, sturdiness, and multiple uses. Having tables with multiple uses in a shared environment is a mixed blessing. Bell choirs sometimes have to track down their bell tables only to find them sticky with glue from Sunday school crafts, littered with potluck leftovers, or being used by another group at the same time as bell rehearsal. Whatever brand of table you buy, segregate them from general table storage, preferably in a locked bell room, so they’re available and clean when you need them. That assumes they were purchased from the music budget, or otherwise allocated to the bell choir, in the first place.
Specialized bell tables contain several features useful for bell choirs, like adjustable legs and acoustic surfaces. They’re available in lengths and widths that provide flexibility not only for your performance setup, but for transport. Many more cars and SUVs can hold 3 or 4 foot long bell tables than can hold 6 or 8 foot banquet tables. If you want narrow (24 or even 18 inch) tables, you’re more likely to find them at a bell vendor than a local store. The disadvantage is that specialized tables are expensive, can’t easily be adapted to other purposes (if you need that flexibility) and, most importantly, probably have to be ordered and sent to you. Shipping is costly, because tables are oversized parcels. When you’re ready to buy a set of tables, it’s worth arranging with a vendor to bring them to a handbell event, so you can buy them, use them at the event, and then take them home. (This is a good tactic for any large or heavy item of bell equipment.)
Features: Some of the features you may consider for your bell tables are:
Folding, and/or with a hand slot – Makes it easier for one person to carry
Shape – Some bell tables come in trapezoids, crescents, or other shapes. You can also buy or make triangular wedges of plywood or aluminum to bridge between angled tables. While it’s easier to buy foam and make table covers for rectangular tables, custom shapes have advantages for certain configurations. For example, a low bass player can ring large bells more easily if wedged inside a corner, with table space on three sides (two for active ringing, and one for storing unused bells behind the ringer).
A solo ringer may have to move or reach less if using a table shaped in a crescent. However, using customized shapes locks you into transporting your own tables to perform, both because of the muscle memory involved in ringing, and the likelihood that your covers wouldn’t fit tables borrowed at the venue. Non-standard shapes also seem harder to transport, because they don’t use space in the car as efficiently as a rectangle.
Acoustic properties – Certain vendors claim their table surface is better acoustically. Vendors may also claim that their tables make less noise (e.g. from legs squeaking), which a bell choir expecting to record would care about. I don’t have the experience to support or refute either claim, but advise you to consider it, if it’s important to you.
Choice of lengths – The shorter the table, the more flexible the setup options. It’s far easier to optimize a setup with 3 or 4 foot long tables than 8 foot tables. It’s also easier for one person to carry a short table, especially on stairs, or transport it in a car. Very large choirs would want a mix of modular table sizes, not a lot of small tables. Total storage space requirements should be about the same regardless of individual table lengths.
Choice of widths – 24 inch tables take less room to transport and are adequate for many bell choirs. However, if you use a lot of equipment at once (like bells, duplicate bells, and chimes), or if your table top music stands don’t allow storage underneath, or if you assign double octaves to certain ringers (like high treble), you may need 30 inch wide tables. If you find you need even wider tables, remember that you can turn a 3 foot long table the other way and have a 36 inch width. However, you need to consider the setup space available and feasibility of reaching sheet music to turn pages. Tables of different widths can be accommodated in the same setup by aligning the front edges. Check that the distribution of ringers doesn’t create an awkward position for someone at one wide and one narrow table.
Adjustable height legs – Be sure the available height is enough for your planned performance venues. For example, you may want the front legs long enough to rest on a step that’s lower than the main chancel level. Conversely, you may want to lower tables for children or someone seated in a wheelchair. Also determine whether you want height adjustment along a continuum or in fixed increments. (Some tables legs adjust to only 2 or 3 positions.) Adjustable height tables not only allow you to optimize the height for your choir’s average height, but to mix foam thicknesses, using, for example, 3” thick foam in the treble and 4” in the bass, while aligning all the tables at the same height.
Often adjustable legs can be folded back along the table without shortening the legs. If not, mark your preferred height on the table leg with a felt tip marker.
If you want to build your own tables, you can purchase adjustable table legs from Jeffers.
Even tables of fixed height should have a leveling function, usually in the feet. If not, carry shims, in case the floor isn’t level.
More thoughts about height: When considering table height, remember that you’ll add at least 1” of foam (the thickness I use for solo ringing) and more likely 3 or 4 inches to create the ringing height. (I’ll write more about foam in a separate article.) A typical choir ringing height is 33 inches. My tables are set for a ringing height of 34 inches (I’m 5’3” tall). A taller soloist should have an even higher ringing height. As little as half an inch makes a difference in timing. I used to have problems in concert warm-up until I realized that my shoe sole height was throwing me off. Now I wear my performance shoes for the warm-up.
When I watch online video of solo ringers, their tables are nearly always too low. If you’re bending over to pick up bells, especially if it causes back pain, consider raising your tables instead. You should be able to reach any part of the table directly in front of you without bending over, and with elbows slightly bent. Your posture should be upright, with your back straight, shoulders relaxed, and upper body facing outward, not down. This creates a connection with the audience and makes them feel acknowledged, instead of watching the top of your head as you bend over, absorbed in your bells. Try raising your tables one inch at a time, testing the new height for at least a week. When you feel like you have to shrug your shoulders or bend your elbows too much to pick up the bells, your tables are too high. Lower them one inch.
You can modify the height of your ringing surface by using a different thickness of foam, or making wooden blocks to put under table legs of fixed height.
Length: There’s no substitute for sufficient table space. If you hear bells clash, or notice dings when you polish the castings, the table is too crowded. Even adding 3 linear feet will help. The minimum table length required is 2 linear feet per person in a bell choir. (I prefer 2.5 feet per ringer.) A three octave bell choir needs about 27-28 linear feet of table. This should be distributed among the group so the largest bells get the most space. Using floor music stands (instead of tabletop stands) will help bass ringers use the available table space more effectively.
When configuring tables for a choir, make sure everyone has an actual space to stand. Don’t double-count the space at corners (it’s available only on one side or the other, not both), and avoid placing anyone so s/he’s ringing right at someone else’s ears. Also check that table breaks don’t put a ringer in an awkward situation, like standing half at a narrow table and half at a deeper table.
Whether you organize tables in a U shape, a single line, or multiple rows, try to use the same configuration for practice as performance. This uses setup time more efficiently, as ringers don’t waste time figuring out where everyone should stand. Choirs also perform better if what they hear in performance from the ringers around them resembles what they heard in rehearsal.
Soloists often have a preference for either 8 or 9 feet of table, because we develop landmarks on a table, and our covers are fitted to that size. Some use 12 feet. I prefer 9 feet, but that locks me into carrying my own tables to concerts, as venues seldom have 3 foot tables suitable for solo ringing. You’re more likely to find an 8 foot (or two 6 foot) tables available at venues.
Brands available: Handbell websites list tables under accessories (except Jeffers, which lists them under table equipment).
Schulmerich – I use these because I bought them at the same time as the bells. I later lucked into an extra set of tables when a local girls choir offered their unused handbell tables (part of a handbell package they’d purchased) at a ridiculously low price.
Schulmerich tables are 30” wide by 3’ long, and have legs with height adjustment from 29-42” (table height) in 1” increments. They currently cost $194 each. Schulmerich now offers tables in crescent shapes, triangular wedges, and foam to fit them. You can read more about them on their website.
• Adjustable height
• Legs adjust easily and lock into place securely
• New shapes are available and compatible with Schulmerich rectangles
• Can be purchased at a discount with a set of handbells
• Sharp corners – I kept the styrofoam shipping corners for each table. These reduce rattling in the car and prevent scratching wooden floors at a venue. However, the tables tend to get stuck in doorways when I’m pulling the cart through. I’m looking for a better way to pad the corners.
• Bumpers harden and break off – They’re difficult to replace locally, since they’re not a standard size. You need bumpers to lock the table legs in place when folded. Otherwise, the tables tend to unfold by themselves, usually at the worst possible time.
• Warping – I learned this the hard way. For months, I’d had problems with one table not level, and I thought it had a short leg. I tried a different table and also used shims, but nothing solved the problem. One day I was checking my table setup from the audience before a museum concert, and happened to stand at exactly the right angle below the stage to notice the table was warped. At home, I checked other tables and found the same problem. It’s possible that Schulmerich would replace them under warranty, but I’d have to pay shipping both ways.
Malmark – I used Malmark tables in my first bell choir.
Malmark tables are 30” wide by 3’ or 6’ long, and have legs with height fixed at 28.5” (table height). They currently cost $140 each (3’) or $180 each (6’). Legs have a leveling feature that can also raise them one inch, or you can buy leg extenders.
• Less likely to mar the floor when setting up
• 6’ table folds in half, and has a handhold
• Included in handbell package deals
• Less durable – The tables we used tended to sag.
• Top surface is more vulnerable to moisture.
• Limited ability to adjust table height.
Jeffers “Almost Perfect” – If I had it to do over again, I would probably buy these tables for solo ringing, because of the lighter weight and rounded corners. I’d be less inclined to buy them for choir ringing, as I’ve heard they aren’t sturdy enough for bass bells.
Jeffers tables are 30” wide by 3’ or 4’ long. They have legs with height adjustment from 28-42” (table height). They currently cost $170 each (3’) or $200 each (4’).
• Rounded corners – less likely to scratch floors when setting up, or the car when loading
• Available in either 3’ or 4’ rectangle or trapezoid – many soloists prefer to ring on 8’ (2 x 4’) table length, instead of 9’
• Requires a tool to adjust leg height
• Not as sturdy for low bass bells, especially when marting
Peery Products, which is no longer in business, used to offer tables with built-in foam, muslin covers, and music racks. You may come across them, but they’re no longer available for purchase.
When borrowing tables at a venue, ask your contact to measure the exact dimensions and send them to you. You can’t afford to find out on the concert day that the tables are 6’ not 8’, or vice versa, or that there aren’t as many as you thought. Even better, go and look at the tables yourself. Never assume that, just because you’re borrowing tables from a bell choir, they know the dimensions of their equipment. With non-handbell venues, you even need to specify a rectangular table. I’ve heard of a soloist finding the 8’ banquet table she requested: a round 8’ banquet table.
When attending handbell events you have to travel to, it’s almost always more cost-effective to rent tables from the event coordinator, if offered. (It’s pretty safe to assume the table dimensions will be what the event coordinator says they are.) When you calculate the cost of fuel to send one or even 2 cars filled with tables, you can see it makes sense to leave them home if you possibly can.
If you ever have to ship your tables anywhere, including back to the factory, you’ll be glad you kept the original boxes, if you have somewhere to store them.
Duplicate equipment, especially for a soloist, is a lifesaver. I keep a set of concert tables near the garage, so I don’t have to take apart my practice setup, carry tables downstairs, then reverse the process afterwards. This saves me about an hour of menial labor per concert. It also means I can practice between concerts, even if the tables are still in the car, when concerts are scheduled close together.
If you have a lot of bell equipment, an “extras table” gives you someplace to store bells, mallets, etc. that you’re not using in the current piece. This is especially helpful for small ensembles, soloists who ring on larger bells, or soloists who need somewhere to assemble a bell tree during a concert. However, that table requires transport and table covers. The first few years I performed as a soloist, I nearly always took an extras table to concerts. Now I try to manage with just the main table whenever possible, planning my program selections accordingly. If you do use an extras table, you don’t need 4” thick foam on it. You can use 1/2” foam, or even pad the top table cover with quilted fabric.
Some of the vendors offer flatbed table carts. I much prefer the Rock N Roller multi-cart, which has bars on the ends to contain the tables standing up. Always stand tables on the narrow end (30” rather than 36” edge) so you can get through doorways. In general, a wheelchair-accessible venue will have wide enough doorways (and ramps) to accommodate your cart loaded with tables.
If your bell room is carpeted, buy small plastic carpet protectors (at the hardware store) to put under the bell table feet.
Mark your tables by writing your name on the underside with a felt tip pen. If you’re a soloist, also figure out which table order gives you the smoothest surface, without ridges from mismatched edges. Then mark them “left,” “right,” and “center,” and note which is the ringer side.
Next time, I’ll talk about foam pads.
Thanks to MA Bellingham, Neesa Hart, Nancy Hascall, and Jad Johnson for their input to this article.
Copyright © 2013 Nancy Kirkner, handbells.com