Documenting solo choreography

Once you figure out how you’re going to play a handbell solo, record the choreography for future reference (and possible publication). There are several approaches you can use. I prefer the system found in Nancy Hascall’s notation guide (part of which appears in the Guild’s notation guide), which I find easy to use and intuitive. I recommend buying a sheet lifter from Jeffers that summarizes single bell technique notation on the front and multiple bell technique notation on the back.

I won’t duplicate the notation here, but it covers:

• Setting up four-in-hand pairs, specifying which hand, and whether the clappers are parallel (Shelley) or perpendicular (ring-and-knock)
• Constants (starting and stopping)
• Tabling and breaking apart paired bells
• Displacement
• Passing

The Guild and Jeffers guides cover six-in-hand and bell trees, as well as standard symbols for techniques like malleting and martellato. If you want to explore other notation systems, you can find them in Christine Anderson’s “blue book” (Songs for the Solo Ringer 2) and David Allen’s ‘Advanced Solo Ringing.’ Christine’s notation overlaps a great deal with Nancy Hascall’s, but she uses certain symbols differently. David’s system is a complex and comprehensive method of marking every element of the choreography, including body movement. It seems like it would be time-consuming to implement, but it leaves no doubt as to exactly what the soloist should do at every point in the music. It’s well worth your time to memorize the symbols used in whatever notation method you choose; you’ll use them often.

How to document your choreography: If a work is public domain, I enlarge the solo bell part before I start working with it, so it’s easier to read on a music stand and to mark up. I input it into Sibelius and change the staff size. If a bell solo takes more than one page, I punch holes so the two pages face each other, without page turns. I keep them in a binder on my music stand; the binder contains all the pieces currently in progress. (I have a separate binder for pieces to be played at my next concert, and a third binder for Christmas music I’m working on or performing. The binders are marked Practice, Concert, and Christmas, respectively. I’ll talk about the rest of my filing system another time.) Along with the bell part, there’s a tab with the title of the piece, a plastic folder with the accompaniment (and later setup notes), and blank lined notebook paper.

As I work through the piece, I’ll pencil in circles for constants, and arrows for tabling bells, right on the noteheads. I mark four-in-hand setups above the staff if set when picking up bells, and below the staff if set while tabling bells (an arrow goes from the notehead to the new pairing). As I learn about displacements required in the initial setup, I note them at the top of the page. Notation about displacements during the piece go below the staff. It’s also helpful to note which hand I’m on, at least every 10 measures or so.

Here’s an example of what my notes might look like as I’m choreographing a piece (from Gesu Bambino):

Gesu Bambino choreography documentation example

If a work is copyrighted, it’s illegal to make a copy of the entire piece for any purpose without permission of the copyright holder. That’s part of what publishers mean when they write “All rights reserved.” A few publishers give you a master license to make as many copies as you need for your own use; that’s clearly spelled out in the license that comes with the music. That should allow you to make an enlarged photocopy, but I suggest asking permission before putting the piece into a notation system.

If you can’t make a legal copy, I suggest you mark up the original bell part without worrying about messing it up. If you buy a second copy of the piece to give your accompanist, as I do, it will come with a fresh copy of the bell part. You can clean up the documentation on that. If you plan to give your only original to your accompanist, you may prefer to write very lightly on the bell part so you can erase markings and make changes.

Another option is to keep track of choreography on a sheet of notebook paper. Write the measure number on the left, then use standard notation or just words. Leave plenty of blank lines so you can add things later as you discover them. Here’s an example:

m 16 trill B5\A5
m 17 remove F#6 (sooner?)
m 18 C6 constant lh
m 19 keep D5 right

A third option is to buy plastic sleeves and a special marking pen. Then you can put the bell part in the sleeve and write on the plastic. I haven’t tried this myself. Smudging might be a problem.

I tend to make a lot of changes to my choreography as I experiment with different approaches. Each day, I write down what I discover so I don’t waste time reinventing the wheel. Sometimes I’ll add a date to my notes so I remember the latest change.

An aside: I used to keep my coaching notes filed by date. I later realized they were an invaluable cumulative resource on each piece, but it took time to read through everything to find the piece I was interested in. Now, as I rehearse a piece with my coach/accompanist, I make notes on paper filed with that piece in the binder. Though her comments are generally about interpretation, musical expression, or ensemble, sometimes they affect choreography. For example, maybe a note is always late and I need to find a solution.

Shortly before I perform a piece for the first time, I write up my setup notes. I use a blank 4×6” index card to record:

• Name of the piece
• Composer with dates, arranger
• Key signature
• Time required
• Bell range
• Map of setup at the beginning of the piece (which I record from memory, then verify at the bell table)
• How the piece starts: what bells do I have in which hands, do I come in with the piano, before it, or after it?

I file these setup notes with each piece. They’re very helpful for creating the concert program. At the venue, I ask for a music stand, on which I place my copy of the program and my stack of index cards. Then, if I forget a setup, or which piece comes next, I have something to refer to. I used to write setup notes on my copy of the program, but it was a lot of duplicate effort. I find I seldom need to refer to this information during the concert, but it gives me peace of mind in case I go blank. Here’s an example of setup notes:

Finlandia – Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) arr. Christine Anderson and Anna Laura Page 3:50
F major, C major

E5-E7 naturals +G7, Bb5

E5 B5 G6/A6 C7\B6 D7 G7\E7
F5/G5 C6/D6 Bb5\A5 F6\E6

Pick up G6/A6 and F6\E6 during piano introduction

A couple of things may interest you about this example. If you know the piece, you’ll see I’m starting on the opposite hand from the published choreography. This single change simplifies the ending, by eliminating the awkward setups; everything falls into place. To start, each pair is placed where I’ll want it as I move up the table, not in keyboard order. I don’t necessarily set bells back in the same place. For example, I put C6/D6 in the F5/G5 spot as I move left, so I can pick up E5 with my right hand. As I start to unwind the pairs, Bb5 ends up below B5. During the transition (with key change) between the verses, I swap B5 and Bb5 and reset some of the pairs. Then, as they say, Bob’s your uncle.

You can use this principle of setup notes in other contexts. For choir ringing, write on the first page which bells you use in the piece; four-in hand pairs; what bells start the piece in your hands; mallets, chimes, or other equipment needed. For quartet ringing, you may want to list what bells you add or remove from the table, or displace, instead of making a map. That’s sometimes easier to keep track of with multiple people setting the table. You’d also list what order the ringers stand in, and who signals the beginning and end of the piece. If you perform using sheet music, you can record this on paper that you keep in your binder in front of the piece.

I wait until after I’ve performed a piece to clean up the documentation. To be perfectly frank, sometimes that period is measured in years. Cleaning up choreography documentation is my least favorite task, which is odd because choreographing a piece in the first place is my favorite task. Sometimes procrastination works in my favor. As I learned new techniques, I went back and reworked the choreography on some of my early pieces, in many cases using an entirely different approach.

It was also a happy day for me when I realized that, if I had any kind of video of myself playing the piece, even in a practice session, I had a record of the choreography that would allow me to recreate it later in written form.

Copyright © 2012 Nancy Kirkner,