Getting started as a soloist – repertoire

When you consider the number of hours that go into learning a handbell solo, and that even the most advanced soloists may have a repertoire of fewer than 100 pieces, you can see the need to choose each piece very carefully. It’s fine to choose your favorite hymn or song as your first piece, but after that you need a strategy for repertoire selection. You want your future concert pieces to have something more in common than that they’re being played on handbells. Every piece needs to be one you truly love, because you’re going to play it literally hundreds of times as you learn it.

Come up with a plan for a concert you’d like to give sometime in the future, and learn pieces that you see fitting into that plan. A coherent theme helps unify the concert. For example, last season I prepared a program of French Romantic music. This season, I’m working on music of British composers, primarily of the 20th century. Next season, I’m thinking about a program of international folk songs. Meanwhile, I prepare a Christmas program each year, and I include pieces that are appropriate not just at Christmas but at other times, like Vivaldi’s ‘Winter.’ Choose pieces versatile enough that you can play them in many settings. Classical music is something you can play anywhere you’re likely to be invited: in concert, in church, at a retirement home, at a handbell conference, and eventually at weddings and memorial services.

This is especially important for seasonal music like Easter and Christmas. Let’s say you spend a lot of time learning the hymn ‘Jesus Christ is Risen Today’ and play it at your church this year for Easter. What do you do next? Go to the Greek Orthodox Church next week and play it there? Play it at your own church again next year? Hope you get invited to play at another church on Easter, and miss being at your own church that day, perhaps leaving a hole in your bell choir? Rename it Lyra Davidica and hope no one recognizes it? You see the problem.

A better choice might be ‘Now the Green Blade Rises,’ to the tune Noel Nouvelet. You can play that pretty much year round, and also put it in your Christmas concert. Another good example (though not for Easter) would be Kingsfold. It’s a generic hymn tune, it’s a Christmas carol, and it’s based on a folk song. You can get a lot of mileage out of a piece like that.

For this hypothetical future concert, you’ll need pieces in a variety of tempi and key signatures. You’ll need something to draw the audience in at the beginning and something to dazzle them at the end. You may want to pair pieces, perhaps two by the same composer or two contrasting psalm settings or two songs from a certain country. You may want a stand-alone bell tree solo, a piece with an extended six-in-hand passage, a piece malleted on the table, or something you can ring in procession.

Using other instruments is a great way to add variety to a concert, but (unless you’re related to the instrumentalist) it makes it harder to schedule that piece for other occasions. Look for pieces where the extra instrument is optional. You also want an instrument with sufficient contrast. Cello and harp both work especially well with bells. Some accompaniments might be played on either the piano or the organ, which adds variety when you have both an organ and an organist available, which is more likely in a church than a secular venue.

For a concert, it’s good to have pieces in a variety of lengths, but it’s hard to play long pieces in church. I’ve played at many different churches, and they usually limit service music to 3 or 4 minutes per piece. You might be allowed to play a longer piece during the prelude. Adagio and largo tend to be good tempo markings, but eventually you’ll want something more up tempo so you can play the postlude of a church service.

I suggest you start with pieces published as handbell solos, using the suggested choreography. Unless you want to be a composer, not a solo ringer, wait until you’re very proficient at solo ringing and choreography before attempting your own arrangements. Pieces written in C major are easier for the novice to read, but they’re harder to choreograph. It’s easier to reach out for sharps and flats than to reach sideways for the naturals.

Some of the publishers you can check for solo music: Hope/Agape (Christine Anderson’s arrangements), STEP, and From the Top. Also look for solo music on Jeffers, which has taken over some of the smaller publishers like National Music and Above the Line. Pay attention to the difficulty levels for the solos that are graded, and stick to the level of something you can finish learning and perform. It doesn’t do any good to prepare bits and pieces of several different works that you abandon because they’re too hard; you can’t build a concert out of that.

As a new soloist, most likely working without a regular accompanist, consider the availability of accompaniment tracks. Hope/Agape recently published a collection by Christine Anderson that has a companion accompaniment CD. This is extremely useful if you don’t have a way to get your own practice tracks recorded. I would love to see more publishers offer this, perhaps selling accompaniment tracks on iTunes. When you get to the point of transcribing works written for other instruments like flute or violin, you can sometimes find backing tracks either in your local music store or on iTunes. Make sure they’re in the same key that you plan to play the piece. Beware of solos published only with accompaniment tracks, not full scores, like the C.A.N. Enterprises publications, if you plan to perform with an accompanist.

I especially like the publishers who allow you to make as many copies as you need for your own use. If you buy something that doesn’t give you such a license, you can’t legally copy it for any reason without permission of the publisher. (The myth that you’re entitled to make a “working copy” is just that, a myth. If you paid for one copy, that’s all you get.) It’s worthwhile to pay a little more up front to be able to give a copy to an accompanist while still having the full score myself. That way, I can mark up the handbell score with the choreography while keeping a clean copy, I can check how my part fits the accompaniment while I’m learning the piece, I can enlarge the score to make it easier to read on a music stand, I can take a binder of all the accompaniments to a concert in case the accompanist is missing something, I can email a PDF to an accompanist who’s out of town, etc. I once had to purchase 4 copies of a collection at $13 a pop because I was playing one of the pieces with 3 different accompanists that season. Just imagine if I planned to tour and had to send it in advance, snail mail, to a half dozen different accompanists, while also keeping a copy for myself and my regular accompanist here. Ouch.

I’ve purchased several different collections, and, though they’re beautiful pieces, I haven’t gotten my money’s worth. I tend to choose individual pieces on their own merit, and for the role they play in a concert plan. Now that I’ve reached the point where I’m able to play some of the more difficult pieces in these collections, I want to arrange my own works. I’d suggest not buying a collection until you have a definite need for at least two of the pieces, or one if it’s indispensable.

When you get to a more advanced level and want to do your own arrangements, choosing works in the public domain has many advantages. You can play them on handbells without asking permission for the adaptation (as you must, if a copyrighted work wasn’t written for solo handbells), you can make whatever modifications you like, and you won’t need to pay royalties and license fees when you perform or record or broadcast them on YouTube. You have been paying ASCAP royalties for the copyrighted works you perform in public, haven’t you? And you do have written permission from the copyright holder for the music you’re playing in all your YouTube videos, right? I’ll write about the legal obligations of soloists in a future post.

Copyright © 2011 Nancy Kirkner,