Composing for solo handbells

I’m writing today for experienced composers who want to learn more about writing for solo handbells. (I’ll write another time for soloists who want to create their own transcriptions.) I’m assuming you’re familiar with handbells as a choir instrument. You may want to review my videos and videos of other handbell soloists on YouTube, to get a sense of how we play handbells as a solo instrument. I suggest also viewing my pages About Solo Handbells and Solo Handbell Methods to become more familiar with the techniques discussed below. My earlier article on Repertoire may interest you, and the Notation Guide published by Handbell Musicians of America (formerly AGEHR) will prove useful.

What range of bells to write for: Handbells are a C instrument that transposes an octave higher. C5 is middle C for handbells, but it sounds the same pitch as C5 on the piano. You can assume that any soloist has access to the range C5 to C7, and handbell solos are concentrated in the treble clef. Assume the bells will be laid out in keyboard fashion (with high bells to the soloist’s right) on a rectangular table about 8 feet long and 30 inches wide. It’s fairly common for advanced soloists to own bells G4 to B4 and C#7 to G7 or even C8. Soloists don’t often ring bells below G4. The larger bells are too heavy for most to pick up quickly and ring with multiple bells in hand. It’s also harder for a soloist to damp out the overtones, which are a 12th above the fundamental. Sometimes there isn’t room for them on the table, and they’re heavy to transport, especially when flying. For the broadest possible market, I suggest writing within the range C5 to C7 for beginning pieces, and G4 to G7 for intermediate or advanced pieces. Make any bells outside those ranges optional by suggesting alternatives, perhaps an octave higher or lower.

Many soloists own some duplicate bells, but it’s best to assume that only one bell set is available. Likewise, many soloists also own (or can borrow) chimes, but it’s best to make them optional. Even a soloist who owns chimes may not take them to every performance, and they usually require extra table space, perhaps as much as 6 feet. Handbell solos usually have some form of accompaniment to fill out the piece. It’s safe to assume that a handbell soloist who’s serious about performing will have access to a pianist, and may have occasional access to other instruments. You can give your piece wider appeal by writing lead sheet symbols or guitar chords that can be played on guitar or harp, in addition to the piano accompaniment.

Key signatures: While it’s easier for a novice to read in the key of C major, it’s harder to play a scale than in other keys. That’s because most handbell soloists set their bells in a keyboard configuration. It’s easier to reach out for some sharps and flats than reach sideways for the naturals on adjacent notes. However, learning a piece written entirely in sharps or flats can be equally challenging. Possible key signatures may be constrained by the bell range available, but key changes aren’t a limiting factor.

Tempo: Tempi that work well are largo, lento, adagio, and andante. Anything faster is possible, but can be difficult for soloists, especially beginners. The soloist produces the best sound when there’s sufficient time to raise the bells to a vertical position. You can put fast passages on mallets, either on the table or on bell trees, use repetitive notes that can be rung four-in-hand or six-in-hand, or give them to the accompanist. Consider allowing time at the end of some phrases for the soloist to make a large graceful motion with the bell.

Dynamics: Solo handbells are a quiet instrument, like a harp, and can be hard to amplify with microphones. Write the piece, especially the accompaniment, with the dynamic limitations of handbells in mind; less is more on the piano part. It’s very easy for the piano to overpower the bells, especially in the high bass bell register. (The high treble bells are more likely to cut through.) Handbell soloists play forte passages by getting the bells up as high as possible. Allow time for this, or write in such a way that the soloist can keep the same 4 bells in hand throughout the forte passage. Creating a crescendo on a sustained note requires the use of one of these techniques: shake, trill, singing bell, or mallet roll.

Quality of sound: Successful solo handbell pieces take advantage of the resonance of the casting. While the percussive strike of the clapper is nearly always audible, allowing time for the sound to bloom through longer slower notes brings out the beauty of the instrument. For the same reason, bells are at their most beautiful played legato. Because handbells and piano are both percussion instruments, any lapse in accuracy (or problems with the piano tuning) when playing the same musical line together will be very obvious. Avoid extensive unison passages (or parallel fifths) between piano and bells, and keep the lines at least two octaves apart. Don’t be surprised if the soloist lets the bells ring right through the written rests. The bells decay quickly, especially in the upper treble.

Techniques within difficulty levels: I suggest assuming the soloist can perform the following multiple bell techniques for these difficulty ratings:

• Easy/Beginner – weaving, Shelley, limited four-in-hand (C6 and higher)
• Medium/Intermediate – traveling four-in-hand (G5 and higher), limited bell tree work
• Difficult/Advanced – six-in-hand (C6 and higher), reverse grips, four-mallet grips

Assume that a soloist of any level can perform all the single bell techniques and articulations in the AGEHR notation guide, as well as presets, displacement, and passing.

What makes a piece difficult: Besides techniques, rhythm, and tempo, the relative position of the bells on the table in sequential notes can affect the difficulty level of the piece. This is especially true of large intervals, whether directly or within a measure. Avoid frequent jumps of more than an octave, where the pair of notes changes. (If the same bell[s] repeat, the soloist can carry a bell along or park a duplicate somewhere.)

Example 1:

Example 1 for composers

The first measure above would be playable, because of the repeated D6. The second measure would be harder to play because the soloist would need to reach back and forth across more than four feet of table to pick up each bell.

Example 2:

Example 2 for composers

The first measure, a mirror image stepwise progression, would be easy to play using traveling four-in-hand or weaving. rh (right hand) and lh (left hand) indicate which hand the soloist would naturally use for each bell in this passage. Notice how the same hand reaches for the same bell, for example G5 in the right hand. (This would also be true in an arpeggio, though slightly more difficult because of the distance involved.) In the second measure above, the B5 changes hands. It’s easier to choreograph with an odd number of unique bells between repetitions of a pitch, because a bell can stay in the same hand.

Also, on the last note of each measure, the soloist is reaching across with the right hand to pick up a bell at the left. This could be solved by playing the first measure starting on the opposite hand, but that causes problems in the second measure.

Example 3:

Example 3 for composers

This can be played, but it presents a tricky choreography problem with the sevenths and the sequence at the beginning of the second measure. (This passage is from Elgar’s ‘Nimrod.’)

Example 4:

Example 4 for composers

This passage is from the violin version of Massenet’s ‘Meditation from Thais’ in the key of D major. It’s an example of something that can be played on solo handbells but was extremely difficult to choreograph, due to the sequence of triplets in too wide a range for the tempo. This piece is one of the most difficult in the solo handbell repertoire, primarily because of this passage.

Example 5:

Example 5 for composers

Another difficult passage from ‘Meditation.‘ The 16th note run is challenging at this tempo. Counting the E6 on beat 3, the soloist has to hold or pick up 5 bells in rapid succession, while moving up the table. That’s one bell too many for bells of this size (E5, G5).

What enhances a piece: Many handbell solos give the soloist only the melody line, often twice through, an octave apart. In a concert, that gets tedious. Give the melody to the accompanist sometimes and have the soloist play a repeating pattern or counter-melody or even just some harmonious half notes. It’s best not to leave the soloist idle for too long. Standing in front of an audience with nothing to do can be uncomfortable. Conversely, allow enough time for transitions between passages, especially if the soloist needs to move to the other end of the table, reset bells for a key change, set up a six-in-hand or bell tree, or pick up mallets. If you’re unsure of how much time to allow, consider including a short accompaniment pattern that can be repeated until the soloist signals the accompanist to move on.

If you don’t play piano yourself, ask several accompanists to review and comment on the accompaniment. Handbell soloists often work with church accompanists, so plan the difficulty level of the piano part with that in mind.

Add something interesting to every piece. It might be a technique like martellato or bell tree, or a key change, or a slow passage meant for visual effect. A pentatonic melody provides an opportunity for a six-in-hand passage. When adding another instrument, like cello, make the extra instrument optional. The more performers involved, the harder it will be for the soloist to schedule rehearsals and performances. Small percussion also works well, if the soloist owns the item, knows how to play it, and can bring it to the concert (a challenge when traveling). Try not to begin and end the piece with one bell in each hand, at the shoulder. That becomes repetitive in a concert. Allow the soloist time to pick up bells during an introduction, or end with a martellato or a flourish with a finger damp.

Preparing your piece for publication: Be sure to have a soloist ring through your piece and advise of any problems. Pieces that seem simple to read are not always that straightforward to ring. I’m always happy to ring through new pieces and give feedback. Depending on your timeframe, what else I have going on, and whether I see the piece becoming part of my repertoire, I may also be able to work out and document the choreography and/or do the demo recording.  Be sure you’re close to the final version before considering choreography. Even something as small as adding in a bell that wasn’t used before can cause problems, if the soloist removed it from the table and used the open space for something else. Although published choreography is helpful for beginners or for highly complex pieces, don’t be surprised if soloists adapt the choreography to their own stylistic preferences.

The published music should include:

• A clean handbell part
• A handbell part marked with suggested choreography
• Accompaniment with solo line

I really appreciate it when publishers make a handbell solo available with a master license that allows me to make as many copies as I need for myself and my accompanists. I’m happy to pay a little more up front for this privilege. Savvy publishers realize that the best way to counteract illegal photocopying is to front-load the charges for solo music. I also appreciate being able to look at a piece online to determine the bell range, key signature, and difficulty level, and to hear a demo recording, before I buy it. If there’s a story behind the piece, document it for use in program notes or introducing it in concert.

I also very much appreciate it when a publisher makes a recorded accompaniment available to use during practice. I would love to see publishers sell these over iTunes. Having an accompaniment track available will make your work significantly more attractive to the handbell soloists who don’t have a way to record the accompaniment. This is especially true for those starting out, who may not have a regular accompanist. The ideal package would be accompaniment alone at 100% tempo, 90% tempo, and 50% tempo, and a demo recording of all parts together at 100% tempo.

In describing your composition for the publisher’s catalog, indicate the range of bells used, not the number of octaves. Solo sets are skewed toward the treble end, and it’s not unusual for a soloist to own the top of the fourth and fifth octave but not have the bottom of the third octave, never mind the fourth or fifth. There are no set difficulty levels for solo music as for bell choir music. Describe the difficulty by indicating what techniques are required to play the piece (for example, traveling four-in-hand).

Examples: If you want to look at some examples, I suggest the solo handbell arrangements by Nancy Hascall (who has the unique distinction of being an advanced soloist, a composer, and an outstanding pianist). Her works are mostly written at an advanced level, and can be purchased through Jeffers. Christine Anderson and Anna Laura Page have an outstanding composing partnership. Sueda Luttrell and Arnold Sherman published their excellent solo collection through Red River Music. Some popular handbell solos are Be Still, My Soul (arr. Anderson and Page, Hope Publishing), Joshua! (arr. Hascall, Above the Line), Grazioso (Sherman/Luttrell, Red River Music), and Symphonia on Hyfrydol (McChesney, STEP).

What we need: What I see as a real gap in the repertoire is original material for solo handbells that would be appropriate for both secular concerts and church services.  The vast majority of pieces available today are hymn tunes and sacred war-horses.  I’d especially like to see more works written at an intermediate level. Although I ring at an advanced level, I generally program some pieces of medium difficulty into my concerts, and there’s a bigger market for pieces accessible to more musicians. Personally, I don’t care for medleys. If I’m going to choreograph and memorize 2 or 3 different melodies, I’d like to get more mileage out of them through separate pieces. There’s also growing interest in works written for handbell trees. I’ll write about this another time.

There’s little money in writing for solo handbells; it’s a labor of love. Still, I see the interest in solo handbells growing every year. With any luck, the instrument will mature to the point where commissions become more common, building the available repertoire. I would like to personally thank you for considering writing for this unique and beautiful instrument. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if I can help in any way.

I’m grateful to composers Janet Anderson, Nancy Hascall, Linda Lamb, and Kathleen Wissinger for their input into this article.

Copyright © 2011 Nancy Kirkner,