Difficulty levels for solo handbell music

There’s been some discussion recently about developing a system for assigning difficulty levels to solo handbell music. At present, works are not rated or are rated by subjective criteria, either by a handbell soloist (who tends to be more accurate) or by a non-solo-ringing handbell editor or composer (with mixed results). A common mistake is to assume a piece that is easy to read is easy to solo ring.

To save time and money, publishers typically produce a sound file of solo works using either MIDI or a bell choir with one bell in each hand, instead of testing the work with a handbell soloist. This frustrates soloists, who may buy works that don’t fit their skill level, and composers who hear their works played badly, not up to tempo, or not at all. Poor sales may lead publishers to underestimate the demand for solo works. Soloists are starving for concert repertoire, and the market for solo works is growing, but solo pieces published without testing fall short, just as a bell choir work would, if it were tested on the piano instead of with an actual bell choir.

Some argue it’s too early to develop a rating system, but I see it differently. The longer the situation continues, the more publishers and composers will flail around without adequate guidance, the more soloists will rely on workarounds (or leave solo ringing entirely), and the more pieces will enter the literature with inaccurate ratings. Others say there’s no substitute for viewing the piece before buying, and I agree with this. However, it isn’t an either/or choice. Publishers typically provide BOTH a preview and a rating for bell choir works. The rating allows users to narrow down options, and the preview supports their selection from that smaller pool of appropriate pieces.

I’ve compiled my thoughts on what makes a solo piece more difficult and drafted this matrix for consideration and discussion. Permission is granted to download and print this file for your own use. If you wish to share the document, send a link to this page rather than copying the document.

Solo handbell difficulty matrix

Copyright © 2014 Nancy Kirkner, handbells.com