Alternate Shelley and combo ring

This article assumes you understand the basics of Shelley ringing and four-in-hand “ring and knock.” You generally use Shelley to ring two bells together, and set the clappers parallel. You use ring and knock to ring two bells separately, and set the clappers perpendicular. However, sometimes you want to ring two bells separately when they’re set up for Shelley, or you want to ring two bells together when they’re set up for ring and knock. You’ll have more choreography options if you learn alternate Shelley, where you ring one bell in Shelley configuration, and combo ring, where you ring and knock at the same time.

Alternate Shelley: Holding two small bells with the clappers parallel, pivot the primary bell (closest to your palm) around the handle of the other bell. Use a wrist rotation like rattling a doorknob, but engage your whole forearm, from the elbow. You may find this easier if you hold the bells flat just above the table, with the primary bell casting pointed to the left, and the secondary bell pointed away from you. (This assumes you’re right-handed and hold the setup in your dominant hand.) Think of a clock face: the primary bell is pointed at 9:00, and the secondary bell at 12:00. Once you’re comfortable with that motion, try holding the bell more upright and following through toward 10:00 after you ring.

When you’ve mastered the primary bell (which may take a while), hold the secondary bell straight up and ring it with a knocking motion. This is more of a hand motion, hinged at the wrist. The primary bell should rotate on the axis of its own handle, and should not ring. If it does, grip the inside of the secondary bell’s handle with the fingertips of your index and middle finger (of the same hand that’s holding the bell). Hold the secondary bell slightly away from the primary bell and ring it with just the force of your fingers. That’s the motion you want to achieve. It may help to hold the casting of the primary bell loosely between the fingers of your other hand as you learn this technique. You want the primary bell to rotate, not move up and down.

Once you get that to work, close the gap and see if you can do it with the bells in their normal position. Ring the secondary bell with a downward motion and follow through by lifting the casting toward 10:00. When the technique becomes more reliable, work toward ringing with the bell vertical, and following through straight ahead.

If you know how to ring interlocked six-in-hand, you’ll find it easy to ring alternate Shelley. Just remove the middle bell. You won’t need quite so much throwing motion on the outer bell; ring it with a more upward stroke.

Combo ring: Holding two small bells in ring-and-knock configuration, start ringing the primary bell. As you do, turn your hand slowly until the back of your hand is facing you. Eventually, you’ll have reached a point where the primary bell has stopped ringing and you’re knocking the secondary bell. Now reverse the hand motion and knock while slowly turning your hand back to “ring” position, with your thumb pointing across your body.

As you do this exercise, notice that both bells begin sounding part way through the hand rotation. That’s what you’re aiming for. There’s a sweet spot halfway between the two hand positions where both clappers engage equally, and that’s called combo ring. Stop at that point and practice until both bells sound reliably. Visualize a line roughly halfway between the two bell’s trajectories, on a diagonal away from you, if you want both bells to ring with equal force. Later, you can refine the amount of sound you get from each bell by being closer to the “ring” position or the “knock” position, depending on which bell (if any) you want to stress.

It’s very important to keep your wrist solid as you do combo ring. The motion should be like scooping rice out of a bin, with no twisting of the wrist. Use your whole arm behind the motion of the bells, starting from the shoulder and hinging at the elbow instead of the wrist. If you do twist the wrist, it will cause pain (and perhaps injury), and the bells will ring with a “ka-chang” sound, not together.

Four-in-hand practice tips: In all these moves, remember that, before the stroke, the clapper needs to be angled back to allow the bell to ring. If the clapper starts on the same side as the strikepoint, it will fall forward with insufficient force to ring the bell. You want it to travel the full distance across the mouth of the bell. If it doesn’t, try angling the mouth of the casting back.

Also try starting your stroke lower and adding lift to the move. If you still have problems, check that the springs aren’t adjusted so tightly that it takes too much force to engage the clapper. You may not have as much arm strength behind four-in-hand moves as you do in straight ringing.

Don’t hold the handles too tightly. I keep a very loose grip most of the time and then squeeze briefly with my fingers (especially my ring finger and thumb) to engage the clapper.

It isn’t necessary to keep the handles strictly at right angles. They may tend to form an X, and that’s fine as long as the castings don’t touch. In fact, it may make it easier to switch between “ring” and “knock” by reducing the distance each casting travels as you turn your hand to engage the other bell.

Damp four-in-hand pairs on the table, shoulder, or at your waist. You may also be able to damp alternate Shelley with your thumb or fingers.

As with any handbell technique, work to master each move with both hands, not just your dominant hand. If you don’t have your own bells, you can practice alternate Shelley at home with two short wooden spoons. Even if you have your own bells, you may find it helpful to replace the inactive bell with a wooden spoon, so you can refine the motion of the active bell while the spoon rotates on its axis, with no wobble.

There isn’t any notation specific to alternate Shelley or combo ring. Just use the notation that applies to regular Shelley or ring-and-knock.

Choosing whether to use alternate Shelley or combo ring: Some soloists prefer to use only one technique or the other, so the bells are always set the same way and there’s one less thing to remember. I can see the logic in that, since you can use either method to ring the bells separately or together. My students have told me they find alternate Shelley easier for handbell choir music. Sometimes you have to look at the context of the piece; you set up the bells one way for a particular reason, leave them together, and then adapt to that setup when you next ring them. For that reason, it’s helpful to learn both methods.

I tend to use alternate Shelley when the bells are:

• Large
• Very different from one another in size
• Set up for a trill in one hand, and I need to lead with the secondary bell (Baroque trills start on the higher note, but one-handed trills tend to start on the primary bell, which may be the lower note)
• Set up for an ending chord, but I need to ring bells selectively before that

I tend to use combo ring when the bells are:

• Small
• Close to each other in size
• Set up in thirds

However, these aren’t hard and fast rules.

It’s also possible to change the setup between uses. It’s easier to do that on the table, but you can change the setup in the air. Hold two small bells upright in ring-and-knock position. Loosen your grip so the “knock” bell is supported between the knuckles of your index and middle fingers, and the primary bell rests on your thumb with lots of air around it. Put your pinky through the handle of the primary bell, and push it into Shelley position with the first knuckle of your pinky. Let gravity help you; the primary bell may drop slightly in your hand. Then put the pinky back in the normal position outside the handle.

To put it back to ring-and-knock, pull up on the handle with the tip of your ring finger, with pinky assisting as needed. Some people find it helps to hinge the wrists, or pull the elbow down and use that force to assist the fingers.

Copyright © 2011 Nancy Kirkner,