Transcribing for solo handbells

Today’s article is for handbell soloists who want to create their own arrangements. Technically, what we do is considered a ‘transcription.’ An ‘arrangement’ includes substantial original material and requires the same skills as an original composition. I suggest you read my articles on Repertoire and Information for composers. I strongly suggest you use repertoire published for solo handbells until you reach at least an intermediate level and routinely create your own choreography. Then you can recognize what kinds of music work well on solo handbells and solve choreography problems. A beginning soloist can waste a lot of time transcribing works that require skills not yet learned.

For advanced soloists: Remember that we’re pioneering a new instrument, and it’s our responsibility to add to the repertoire. There isn’t much financial incentive for composers to write for us, unless we commission pieces. While it’s fine to ask another soloist to share arrangements (many will), assume that you’re going to have to do a lot of work yourself if you want original material, or else commission a composer to write for you. When soloists go to the trouble of arranging new pieces, they may want to enjoy exclusive rights to them for a while, including their right of first recording. It also takes considerably more work to document an arrangement for publication than it does to prepare it for performance.

Sources of ideas: I spend a lot of time looking for original material, and I maintain a file of ideas for pieces I think would work well on solo handbells. I attend concerts (not primarily handbell concerts) and make notes about pieces I like. I listen to what other musicians are playing on the radio, on YouTube, and at my piano group. Whenever I participate in any kind of musical training, like a training choir I sang in as part of a Kodály course, I keep notes about music that might work on handbells. Other people often make suggestions, especially my husband, who listens to satellite radio, and my accompanist, who helps me develop all my programs.

I go to the music store after-Christmas sales to stock up on books containing unusual Christmas pieces. I look at material for various instruments and voice, scanning the table of contents to see if it’s mostly familiar carols or more sophisticated works. I keep a list of pieces I’m specifically looking for, and I’m also looking for works I’ve never heard of. (I tend to perform for sophisticated audiences who appreciate uncommon pieces.) I’ve found some real gems this way, including a piano piece with a handbell accompaniment on 6 bells, which I decided to play six-in-hand. That didn’t even require a transcription; I just played it differently than the composer envisioned, as a solo ringer instead of a small group.

Finding scores: The Petrucci website (International Music Score Library Project) is an absolute gold mine. The purpose of the website is to put public domain scores online. Some of them are public domain elsewhere in the world, but not the U.S. It’s an excellent reference for researching works you may be interested in. Another good source is the CD Sheet Music distributed by Theodore Presser. These are organized by composer or genre. For example, I bought the complete solo piano works of Mendelssohn and Grieg on one CD. There are other sources, such as Art Song Central, PD Info, Mutopia, and 8 notes, that aren’t as rich in their offerings, but may have what you’re looking for. If you want to find copyrighted arrangements, check the ACE database on the ASCAP website and the databases at BMI and SESAC. These performing rights organizations (PROs) represent their members: composers and publishers who have joined one of the organizations.

You can sometimes find scores online by Googling the name of the work and “sheet music” or “free sheet music.” You’ll also find numerous dead ends, so you may prefer just to order sheet music through your favorite music retailer. Some music retailers subscribe to a database where they can download and print out for you just about any piece you want. Buying a piece of music before you look at it means you won’t know anything about the range of bells used, the difficulty of the bell part, or the sophistication of the accompaniment. I prefer to buy pieces I’ve reviewed, spending time at the library (either downtown or at the nearby university) to research pieces as needed. Sometimes I borrow pieces from musician friends to review before buying my own copy.

Instrumentation: I look for music written for solo piano and soloist. The solo line might be vocal (tenor works especially well) or instrumental (cello, violin, and flute work well). Works written for C instrument don’t need to be transposed (since handbells are also a C instrument). It was worth learning to read tenor and alto clef to discover works written for cello and viola. If a work is available both for voice and instrument, I prefer the instrumental version. It may already be written as a duet between instruments. Vocal pieces often duplicate the solo line in the piano, which can create problems between the two percussion instruments (piano and bells). Avoid passages (such as lots of 16th note changes at rapid tempo) that might not work on handbells (depending on your skill level), unless you can give them to the piano.

Some people take a piano solo and give the melody to the handbell soloist. In my opinion, that sometimes doesn’t leave a rich enough piano part. Conversely, you might choose a piece too difficult for the accompanists you’re likely to work with, especially if they’re volunteers. You want a balance between a piano part that’s interesting but not so difficult you have trouble finding people qualified and willing to play it for you. A piece may be boring if the handbells play only the melody. If you have the composition skills to do more work on the accompaniment, piano solos might be a good source of material.

I’ve had better luck with material written for piano four hands. I put:

The primo right hand part on the bells
The secondo left hand part on the piano left hand part
The primo left hand part and the secondo right hand part for the piano right hand part.

My accompanist then uses that as a basis for creating a piano accompaniment, crossing out notes that can’t be played and massaging it to make it all sound good. It works well, but one hazard is that it puts the alto part at the top of the piano right hand part, giving it undue emphasis. It takes skill and effort to make the piece sound whole again, with proper balance between bells and piano.

I generally don’t use choral (SATB) pieces because I’m looking for something that already has a solo musical line and a piano accompaniment. However, you might consider creating a piano part out of the vocal lines that you don’t take for the bells. Again, this requires testing by someone with the requisite piano and composition skills. I’ve heard that children’s choir music often contains a handbell part that might be played by a soloist, but haven’t investigated that myself.

When using material that has been arranged hundreds of times, like Christmas music, look for a version with an interesting accompaniment. It’s much easier to revise the bell part than to rework the piano accompaniment. I once bought and learned a Christmas carol with a boring piano part, without asking my accompanist’s advice. It was OK for that year, but we haven’t played it since.

Testing the idea: When I have a score, even if not complete, I’ll play part of the piece on handbells to see if it’s worth pursuing. I’m looking for musical lines that translate well to the bells, both physically and acoustically, and for opportunities to do something special, like a bell tree or six-in-hand passage. I want to play the piece with an absolute minimum of bell duplication and with only a reasonable amount of displacement and weaving. Sometimes I set a piece aside until I have an insight into how I might choreograph it, or my skills catch up, or I have a programmatic need for it. If it seems like a piece I want to develop further, I’ll get my accompanist’s input. I’ll ask her either to play some of it on the piano or to listen to a version in YouTube or iTunes. It’s important to work with an accompanist whose musical taste you admire, so you trust her advice.

Getting permission: If a work is under copyright, you must obtain the copyright holder’s permission to adapt it in any way, which includes playing it on an instrument it wasn’t written for. I’ll write more about copyright another time, but generally assume that anything first published in the U.S. in 1923 or later is still under copyright. That includes arrangements of a work otherwise in the public domain. For example, if someone did an arrangement in 2005 of the Star Spangled Banner that you like, assume it’s under copyright unless you have written evidence that you can use it, like a Creative Commons license.

There’s a common misconception that “fair use” means “if I think this use is fair, then copyright law doesn’t apply.” “Fair use” is a narrowly defined legal term that includes things like a journalist quoting from a book in a book review, or someone writing a satire. Fair use never applies to a music performance, paid or unpaid. You can read more about this at the Music Publishers Association website. The Stanford and Cornell libraries have excellent online resources to assist compliance by their university communities. My personal feeling is that, if handbell musicians want to be taken seriously as mainstream musicians, we need to learn and abide by the laws that apply to us. I appreciate the important work composers do, I want them to continue creating material that I like to perform, and I expect to compensate them for what they produce.

You’ll find the copyright holder’s name at the bottom of whatever sheet music you have. In general, the copyright is held by a publishing company, not the composer, so write to the publisher rather than the composer’s agent. It’s usually possible to find a publisher’s website by Googling that name, and then looking for “permissions” as a website page. There’s usually an email address for the person to contact. You may also find this information at ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC.

I write to explain briefly what I do and where I perform, and politely ask for permission to play the piece on solo handbells. I always offer to pay a fee for this. Responses vary from “fine with us, do whatever you like” to “permission granted, so long as certain conditions are met” to one lengthy exchange where I patiently answered questions and waited while they consulted the composer, then a formal letter of permission arrived in the mail. (The piece was worth the effort.) I file a copy of the permission I receive in the folder I create for each piece I’m transcribing.

Publishers nearly always ask that my transcription not be published or distributed without their further permission. I’ve never been refused permission to use a piece, and I’ve never been asked to pay a fee for the transcription rights. (Friends of mine have purchased rights to more well-known works for a fee of around $25-$60.) I do buy as many legal copies of their published version as I intend to use (including one for each accompanist I work with), I pay the ASCAP performance royalties, I credit the copyright holder in concert programs, and I get separate permission before posting the piece to YouTube.

Approaching the transcription: I usually keep the original key signature of the source I’m working from. This once meant buying a bell I didn’t own, an A7. The key signature is often integral to the emotion of the piece. Keeping the original key signature is also a good way to get a variety of keys into your future concert. Transcribing everything to C major may make it easier to read, but it will make weaving harder, and would make a tedious concert. You may have to transpose the piece if you don’t have all the bells required, or if the handbell part goes into a bell range that’s too low for you. (Either you don’t have the bells, or you want to avoid transporting them, or they’re too heavy to lift fast enough.) You may also want to transpose the piece if you intend to publish it and want it to fit the range of bells that you expect other soloists to own. You might look for a source that has already been transposed (e.g. from soprano to tenor voice) or use the transposing function in your music notation software.

Figure out where you want the bells to have the melody. It will be much more interesting if the bells don’t play the same melody line the entire piece. There’s a good chance that the accompaniment already has the melody at some point. Emphasize the melody in the accompaniment and give the bells something else to do, like playing half notes or a countermelody. Or do nothing, and let the piano shine for a moment. Look for an opportunity to add repeated patterns, whether four-in-hand, six-in-hand, or on bell trees. Consider different techniques like mallets or martellato, but only where they make musical sense. Less is more; maybe you want the special effect only on a repeat. Look at some of Nancy Hascall’s arrangements as excellent examples of how to add variety to a piece without overdoing it.

Look for an interesting musical line in the accompaniment that you can transfer to the bells. You can keep that line where it occurs, or move it somewhere else, like to the beginning. You can also change the octave register. If you don’t sight-sing or play piano well enough to find a good musical line, you can listen carefully to recordings or ask someone else to suggest a part. Other ways to add variety to the bell part: transpose part of the melody to another key (or adopt an existing key change), put the melody an octave higher (or lower) in the bells, or put the melody on chimes.

Many pieces can be played mostly as written, especially if they already have interesting musical lines. However, you need to pay attention to length. Sometimes pieces are more enjoyable to play than they are to listen to. Try to remember your initial reaction to the piece, not how you feel about it after working with it for a while. Assume your audience may never have heard it before, so their reaction will be closer to your initial reaction than how you feel after it’s familiar.

You’ll want to document the choreography. For works played mostly as written, figuring out how to play them on bells, and then writing that down, is the most significant contribution the soloist makes. I’ll talk another time about how I approach choreographing a piece.

It’s possible to perform a piece without a complete score. Last year I worked with a harpist who gave me a handwritten melody with guitar chords. She improvised an accompaniment while I developed the melody on bells and chimes, and we talked through our approach to the piece, jotting down some notes to document what we had decided. I once took an organ piece and marked up a bell part on it, telling the organist to play the rest. (I did this with 4 different organists at various times.) I sometimes play the melody of a Christmas carol and ask my accompanist to improvise an accompaniment in the same key. If you plan to use this approach, make sure your performing partner is comfortable with it. If your rehearsal time is limited, a documented part may work better.

More war stories and examples: Start small, learn from mistakes, and build on your experience. One of my first “arrangements” was a Christmas carol that I picked out a cappella on a bell tree, then I moved to the table and played through the melody by ear while my accompanist used a piano accompaniment from a book. I also learned melodies by ear on bell trees and six-in-hand as demonstration pieces for my handbell lecture. I once asked someone to accompany me on flute using a score written for piano, which she revised as necessary. It was lovely, but it would have been even better if we had kept the piano and added a flute part.

In my second year of solo ringing, I started learning a version of Meditation from Thais that was falsely advertised as easy-medium level. Even that simplified version was extremely hard to choreograph, not just for me, but for ringers more advanced than I was. I performed it once, then immediately switched to the original transcription for violin. I underestimated the difficulty, and I had to grow into the piece. I worked on that second version for over a year before performing it. Now I have a better sense of how to discern what will be difficult in a piece, and I approach learning it differently. I make sure I’m able to choreograph the entire piece and believe I can play the hardest parts at tempo before I take the time to learn any of it.

Sometimes you get lucky. I was browsing at the music store and came across a song by Ralph Vaughan Williams. I bought it, then later learned it was in the public domain. I played it straight off the vocal score, learned the handbell part in one day, took some time to perfect ensemble with the piano, and have been playing it ever since.

While not strictly an arrangement, or even a transcription, you can also adapt pieces written for solo bells to a different style of ringing. I took two published Christmas bell solos and put them on bell trees. One of them worked much better than the original table version, and one of them worked well in part but not as well in the lower range, where it really needed to be damped.

Sometimes you may not want to bother creating your own arrangement. Last Christmas, I considered doing my own arrangement of Gesu Bambino. However, with an arrangement by Nancy Hascall readily available online, it didn’t seem worthwhile to reinvent the wheel. I could see she had solved all the problems, and my time was better spent learning her version. The trade-off is that I have to pay performance royalties whenever I use someone else’s arrangement, and will have to pay licensing fees if I later record or broadcast it. It’s also possible (though unlikely) that a copyright holder may withhold permission for the synchronization license required to record a video.

Documenting your arrangement: Finale is a very popular choice of notation software, and classes are offered through the handbell guild. I use Sibelius, both because I’ve heard it’s more intuitive and because I know other users locally with whom I can compare notes. Members of Handbell Musicians of America can get discounts on notation software. You don’t have to become an expert in any software to start documenting your transcriptions. Do the tutorial and plunge in. Look things up in the online reference as you run into questions. My early efforts were a good learning experience. It’s worthwhile to recognize repeated patterns anywhere they occur in the score, and copy and paste them, which saves a lot of input time. Sibelius has a feature allowing you to scan in scores, which I haven’t tried yet. (I use entering notes for the piano part as interval recognition practice.) If you take a class, be sure you learn how to input all the notation for solo choreography.

Initially, I finished learning a piece and performing it before documenting it. Now I start to document it just before I learn it. One advantage of putting scores into notation software is that you can create a handbell score in large print to make it easier to read and mark up while learning the piece. You can also listen to it, either in parts or all together. You may be able to extract the accompaniment to use as a rehearsal track. (Other options are to have the track recorded or buy an accompaniment track, perhaps in a book of music written for another instrument, or on iTunes. Be sure to check the key signature.) I create my scores as a piano piece with solo violin. The handbell playback in Sibelius doesn’t work in certain ranges.

A spreadsheet helps me track where each score is in the development process. Steps include inputting notes, inputting slurs and dynamics, proofreading, making corrections, having my accompanist play from my score, more corrections, extracting the bell part to mark up manually for choreography, inputting the choreography, and final proofing and reviewing. I keep a folder for each piece, with the source document and every draft version. I put a date on every printout and also note when I’ve input changes to Sibelius, to avoid confusion.

Publishing: Publishing your arrangement is a big topic you’ll need to research somewhere else. Look for publishers who offer similar solo handbell arrangements (for example, some specialize in hymn tunes and some in secular pieces). Check their websites, or call the handbell music editor, for submission guidelines. Publishers are unlikely to want another version of a melody already in their solo handbell catalog. The market is just too small. Consider self-publishing, which is increasingly more convenient to do online using PDFs and PayPal.

Copyright © 2011 Nancy Kirkner,