Elements of a good first solo

I’ve been thinking lately about what makes a good solo piece for a beginner, especially a first solo. I see many handbell soloists dive into repertoire too quickly and ambitiously. It’s time well spent to solidify skills and do choreography exercises before applying them to a performance piece, and to perform simple pieces before tackling hard ones. I’ve developed some choreography exercises that you will find here: Choreography exercises. When picking a performance piece, I suggest using published repertoire at first. There will be plenty of time later to develop your own arrangements, which adds a level of complexity to the task.

The first consideration is bell range, obviously limited to the bells you have available. I suggest going no lower than C5, unless using mallets for larger bells. Good major keys for a beginner are F, G, and D. I also like G minor. These have enough sharps and flats so that sometimes you reach out to the second row, which can be easier than reaching only for bells in the nearest row. (The key of C is easy to read, but it isn’t always easy to ring, because of this lateral motion.) Conversely, reaching out for too many sharps and flats can tire your shoulders and back. Bb major has only 2 flats, but the Bb4 bell is heavy and can be hard for a beginning soloist to lift, especially four-in-hand. Favor a tonic in the “5” range.

The time signature and rhythm should be easy to read and to ring. If you have a choice, choose 4/4 time or something similarly easy, with eighth notes as the shortest note value. Even if you read music extremely well, you will have enough challenges with your first solo piece. I suggest a slow tempo for the same reason. Look for lento, largo, or adagio. It’s much better to play a simple, slow piece correctly, fluidly, and with good musical expression, than to struggle through a piece that‘s clearly too hard for you.

A length of 2 to 4 minutes is good for a start. This will fit well into church services, handbell events, and future concerts. You can estimate the time by looking for a YouTube video of someone else playing it, or multiply the number of measures by the number of beats per measure, divided by the metronome mark.

60 measures
x 4 beats per measure
divided by 70 beats per minute
equals ~ 3.5 minutes

The accompaniment should be easy for a beginner to hear and mesh with. I’ve played some very easy bell parts with disorienting accompaniments, like a deceptive 16th note pattern, or a misleading pulse, or unison accompaniment, all of which take more skill than you may have at this stage. If you can sing along with the piano part, you can probably ring along as well.

I find it easier to learn and express a tune from a song, aria, or hymn (vs. instrumental only), since lyrics are an excellent memorization tool.

Dynamics should be easy to implement. You don’t want to have to ring pianissimo on a 4-bell chord, or forte on large bells at a rapid tempo.

Structurally, you want something neither too simple (just playing the melody through once or twice) nor too complicated. Consider a piece with a melody followed by a countermelody, or one that introduces a key change or mallets or some other fairly simple technique for adding variety.

If choosing a rated published piece, look for one labeled “Easy.” Don’t choose a piece that requires extensive traveling four-in-hand, or any other skill you haven’t mastered yet. Set yourself up for success. If you have the option, choose something for which you can buy an accompaniment track, like the CDs available for Christine Anderson’s Songs for the Solo Ringer 2 and Bronze Praise.

Pick a piece you love; you’re going to spend a lot of time with it. Also choose a versatile tune, not something you can play only on Christmas Eve or Easter Sunday (both of which are stressful times to make your solo handbell debut). Once you learn your first piece, you want to perform it as many times as you can, so you can polish it and build confidence. You don’t want to build a repertoire of pieces you never play more than once, or try to program a concert around a lot of random pieces. You can read more about my thoughts on repertoire development strategy elsewhere on this site.

I recently arranged a first piece for a beginning soloist, designed to meet the criteria I’ve just outlined. Working in Sibelius music notation software, I incorporated some format elements I find helpful:

• Extract the handbell part and enlarge the staves, making the notes easier to read at a distance.
• Organize systems to keep phrases together, and space them out with plenty of room to write choreography symbols both above and below the staff.
• Divide the work into rehearsal sections, noted with rehearsal marks and grouped so the entire section appears on the same page.
• At the top of the first page, leave plenty of room to write setup notes.

The work fell onto two pages, so I hole-punched the print-out with the holes on the right edge of the first page. This allows the soloist to see the entire piece (placed in a binder) at once, without page turns.

Unless you have a master license, or work with a public domain source, you can’t legally duplicate a copyrighted piece of music to adjust the format. However, these changes are worth considering when you make your own arrangements, or commission solo works. If you study with someone who arranges beginner pieces for you, as I do for my students, you might request these format enhancements. I’ve also included them for the benefit of any composers reading this article.

When shopping online, you can use the Music Selection Assistant on the Jeffers website to find easy solos. Make sure the piece comes with a printed accompaniment; some have only a recorded accompaniment track, not a full score. Some publishers post all or part of the scores online in PDFs you can review for difficulty, as well as sound files. You can also search YouTube for works you’re interested in, to watch another handbell soloist playing it and see how complicated it looks. Ask around before trying a piece you haven’t seen someone else play. The rating system for solo bells is unreliable, with non-solo-ringing editors assuming a piece that is easy to read must be easy to solo ring. (A piece arranged by a performing handbell soloist is more likely to have an accurate rating.) When publishers record solo demos, they may use a bell choir (not a soloist), or a MIDI file, further masking the true difficulty level.

Here are some pieces in the published literature to consider for your first solo.

Arranged by Christine Anderson:
America the Beautiful
As the Deer
How Firm a Foundation
Hymn Medley and Telemann’s Grazioso (in Songs for the Solo Ringer – red book)
Largo from Xerxes (in Classic Baroque Solos II)

Arranged by Sueda Luttrell:
Amazing Love, Amazing Grace (in Red River Music Solo Collection)

I haven’t seen these works in their entirety, but you might also consider:

Arranged by Christine Anderson:
Bronze Praise (collection)
Like a River Glorious
Like a Shepherd

Arranged by Cathy Moklebust:
Easy Favorites for the Handbell Soloist (accompaniment CD available)

Copyright © 2013 Nancy Kirkner, handbells.com