Master’s project on solo ringing by Alan Reese

Concordia University, Wisconsin, offers a Master of Church Music Degree. One option is to take it with a handbell emphasis; Dr. John Behnke is the faculty member in charge of the program. Many of the finest handbell musicians I know have completed the course, including Emily Li, Michael Glasgow, Linda Lamb, Sandy Eithun, and Alan Reese. Al, who is a handbell soloist and the Music Director of the Virginia Handbell Consort, did his master’s project on solo ringing, and has kindly given permission for me to share it with you here.

A Handbell Concert and Comparison of Solo Handbell Styles
by Alan D. Reese

In partial fulfillment of the Master of Church Music Degree Concordia University Wisconsin

Chapter One – The Comparison of Solo Handbell Styles

The research for this paper was done by attending concerts, coachings and/or classes with Nancy Jessup, Christine Anderson, Nancy Hascall and Sueda Lutrell as well as watching video of performances and conducting a survey of all four artists.

What we recognize today as solo handbell ringing has its roots in the 1970’s. Today’s handbell solo performers and teachers refer to Kathy Fink and Dan Miller as the first people they saw ringing handbells as a solo instrument. Nancy Jessup, a respected music educator did the first research of handbells with her Master’s degree thesis “A Comparative Study of Aural Recognition Between the Weave and Three Bell Techniques on English Handbells” 1 written in 2002. This study was to show that her three bell technique (moving the body laterally but ringing the bell straight forward from the shoulder of the hand holding the bell) sounded better to the listener than the three bell weave (alternating hands, but ringing bells on an angle away from the body). She keeps the casting of the bell as vertical as possible from the strike point to the completion of the stroke and starts each ringing stroke from the shoulder or as near the shoulder as possible. This consistency of stroke will enable a solo ringer to have a consistent sound and will assist the development to ring with wide dynamic contrast, nuance and musical phrasing. She feels that slow, melodic music is harder to learn to perform well than faster melodies that inherently require less musical sensitivity. If you adhere strictly to her guidelines for ringing, you can become a very musical ringer performing handbell solos that range in difficulty from easy through medium difficulty. As an educator, Nancy Jessup has produced many fine solo and small ensemble handbell ringers. I view Nancy Jessup’s approach as the foundation from which current solo artists have been spawned. 2

Christine Anderson started ringing solo handbells about two years after Nancy Jessup began. She had been ringing for about eight years when she saw Dan Miller play a solo and she then went right home to try it. Her previous handbell training and experience was enough to get her started. Since then, she has produced “Songs for the Solo Ringer,” 3 which has become known as “the red book” as well as a companion video for that book. This is a resource that has started many people on their path to solo ringing. Christine says that she was not taught solo techniques specifically, but learned proper techniques to ring four bells at a time musically while playing in bell choirs. She was strongly influenced by Don Allured and also applied musical principles learned from participating in singing choirs. She is one of the most entertaining solo ringers to watch as she is able to capture a wide variety of audiences with her speed, accuracy and musicianship combined with her flair for entertaining and showmanship while incorporating various props and outfits. She consistently pushes the limits of what the handbell world thinks as “proper” but seemingly abides by only two rules: Never cross your hands and above all be musical both visually and aurally. But at no time does she distract from the musical performance nor fail to use her gifts to witness her faith to the listener. Many solo handbell arrangements have been written by her and for her.4

Nancy Hascall had heard various handbell soloists at festivals and conferences and thought that solo ringing looked like fun but was unable to try her hand at it for a few years due to raising a family and having a full-time job. In the summer of 1989 she decided to borrow the church’s bells and started practicing. Her determination and experimentation resulted in the creation of “traveling 4-in-hand,” a multiple bell technique best described as a combination of 4-in-hand and weaving. Not only does this allow for a more seamless legato, this new technique enables the solo ringer to play dotted rhythms with fluidity and grace both aurally and visually, and its application has allowed Nancy to explore musical styles that were thought to be too difficult or complex to be played by a handbell soloist. It adds to the visual appeal because it seems that the ringer never has an empty hand. Traveling 4-in-hand can be used to reduce the frantic visual picture of a ringer playing a busy melody. By keeping a reoccurring, or a ‘constant’ bell in your hand, you save the step of having to pick it up each time you are to ring it. Using traveling 4-in-hand in her arrangement of “Gesu Bambino” 5 allows the performer to attain much better musical results than by weaving alone. She has created solo arrangements of Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” Bach’s “Air in G” and “Habañera” from Bizet’s Carmen that would be impossible to perform without the creation of traveling 4-in-hand. Hascall does not put as much focus on damping bells according to written note values during a phrase as most ringers would. She approaches damping bells the same way a pianist would use the damper pedal. Unless there is a dissonance created, she is not concerned about damping according to the note values, but will damp according to the harmony. This helps “glue the notes together” and gives the solo ringer a fuller sound that a complete ensemble gets naturally because of the larger chords they play. Another uniqueness in Hascall’s ringing is that she never places multiple bells-in-hand using the shelly set-up, but always uses 4-in-hand. The reasoning is two-fold. First, the soloist doesn’t have to remember which technique to use during the pressure of performance. Second, more musical results are possible because she can more easily control the dynamic level of individual notes when playing a chord for purposes of voicing and voice leading. 6

Sueda Lutrell is the newest of the four to the art of solo handbell ringing. She started solo ringing when she took a position as a bell choir director and found that she missed ringing. Solo ringing was the choice available to keep up her ringing at that time. Her style of ringing could be viewed as more of a combination of Christine Anderson and Nancy Hascall than a distinct one. She has a graceful, fluid legato by mastering traveling 4-in-hand and rings phrases as they would be sung. She can also ring the flashy energetic pieces with style and flair. Sueda is looking for new and different ways to produce different sounds and sound effects with handbells. She recently unveiled bell “sleds” which hold a bell off of the table, but in the same orientation as if it were lying on the table. The bells can be played with mallets or by plucking and they will sustain the sound as if suspended. 7

All four individuals share the same basic philosophy of ringing solo handbells. They all mention the demand for musicality, flawless legato, expressive dynamics, phrasing and nuance. They are also in total agreement that bells are also a visual art, and that the visual and aural components should both be considered and not interfere nor distract from each other. Efficiency of movement, and movement that enhances and complements what is being heard should be incorporated. They also feel strongly that the soloist approaches the handbell set as a solo instrument and apply the same musical performance standards expected from any other instrumental or vocal soloist, never letting the solo handbell performance be reduced to just being the novelty of someone attempting to play ‘all those bells.’ Any well-rounded solo handbell concert performance may certainly include ‘novelty’ elements, but they should be the exception, not the norm. A soloist must not use the difficulty of the instrument as an excuse for an unmusical performance. When ringing in a handbell choir, the larger amount of sound will help cover up spaces between notes. Soloists need to ‘glue together’ their notes when playing legato to avoid any silence. A perfect legato, attention to phrasing and the ability for nuance on each and every note is required for an accomplished handbell soloist. Until a piece can be performed with acceptable musical results including appropriate tempo, it should be practiced, reworked or set aside for later consideration.

Although their philosophies on solo ringing are almost identical, the means to which each accomplishes that result vary greatly. Nancy Jessup considers herself to be more of an educator than a performer and considers one of her ‘milestones’ in her handbell career to be that some of her students have become more proficient as handbell soloists than she. I view Jessup as a solid bridge between the beginnings of modern solo handbells and the present. She concentrated on playing music for worship in which she could be musically expressive and would create the least amount of focus on her as she played. Nancy Jessup’s ringing style is the starting point for today’s solo ringers. She advocates starting each ringing stroke from the shoulder or near the shoulder and keeping the casting vertical and moving throughout the entire stroke. She describes the ringing stroke as a “slide and push.” Also, the bells should move forward, directly in front of the shoulder holding the bell. When moving side to side, the body should travel parallel to the table, and always move your body to where you will pick up or put down, never reach sideways. She believes that it is more difficult to perform slow and melodic pieces than faster ones. She is satisfied playing within the limitations of speed that her more restrictive style requires. This in no way diminishes her abilities or impact on the art of solo ringing as it has developed today. If hers is considered the starting place, then any deviation one makes from it causes you to determine if the result of your change is worth the compromise to her basic principles of solo ringing. The moment you change your ringing direction from straight forward, you risk creating a variation in pitch that may be heard. If you don’t bring every rung casting to an upright position, you create variations in tone and dynamics. It is up to the individual musician to determine what is acceptable to them, and then trust that their music integrity is intact and will be validated by an audience. 8

Christine Anderson’s style is the total opposite of Nancy Jessup’s. She is perhaps the most proficient performer when it comes to solo handbell ringing. She is constantly working to improve her skills and ability to entertain a wide variety of audiences. She does not adhere to keeping the bell casting upright, but will ring close to the table in order to play faster passages. She compensates for this by wearing a lavalier microphone in her hair so the sound of the bells is still projected, no matter the orientation of the casting. She also uses a ringing stroke referred to as the “can opener” in which she rings the bell close to the table, leaves it parallel to the table and then pulls it through the air to the next position. Done with consideration to the music, it is a very effective movement and allows her to make a longer, smoother movement on longer notes. One rule she strictly believes in is to “never cross your hands.” However she will do just about anything else in order to get to a bell to ring it. She carefully choreographs every piece, including her footsteps, and wears ballet slippers as she thinks of her body movement as dancing as she plays. For some pieces she will have the table skirts adjusted so the audience can watch her feet and see how her steps are also choreographed to allow her to ring so gracefully. She will use any and all techniques in the handbell ringer’s arsenal to bring the music to life, as well as incorporating visual elements to enhance the performance to include sparkly and colorful outfits, hats, fancy gloves and even the state flag of Texas. At no time does she let any of that interfere with neither her musicianship nor her bearing witness of her faith to the audience. She is not very tall, but has been able to compensate for her lack of reach by careful choreography and displacing bells when necessary. She uses all forms of multiple bell-in-hand setups and will preset multiple bell-in-hand clusters as needed. Her musical background includes playing the marimba which gives her an ease when using mallets. 9

Nancy Hascall’s style of ringing is very smooth and graceful. Her invention of the “traveling 4-in-hand” which could be described as a combination of 4-in-hand and weaving has enabled her to expand the repertoire of solo handbell music. By using traveling 4-in-hand, she can sustain notes within a melodic phrase longer than weaving alone, allowing her to overlap the notes which gives a fuller, and more connected sound to the melodic line. Her visual fluidity is enhanced by the traveling 4-in-hand as well as the use of finger damping in addition to table and shoulder damping. Like Nancy Jessup, she strives to keep the castings in more of an upright position; however she will ring the bells as she lifts them off of the table, and thus doesn’t need the time to bring the bell to the shoulder first. A very unique element of Nancy Hascall’s ringing style is that she does not use shelley, but always 4-in-hand position when holding two bells in one hand. This eliminates any possible confusion when reaching for two bells with one hand (which way should they be set?) and allows her to more easily control the dynamics of each of the two bells in her hand, which allows her to emphasize or de-emphasize particular notes in a chord. Her approach gives the impression that she is not as concerned about damping the bells. She likens it to pianists’ use of the damper pedal. During the playing of a phrase, a pianist will not use the damper pedal between each melodic note, but will use the damper pedal according to the harmony, unless there is a dissonance created. 10

Sueda Lutrell fits squarely between Christine Anderson and Nancy Hascall, incorporating traits of both in her ringing style. She plays with fluid legato phrases, using traveling 4-in-hand, but not as much or as often as Nancy Hascall. Sueda is also looking for ways to create new sounds, such as an item she calls a bell “sled.” This device holds the bell in the same orientation as it would just lying on the table, put allows the soloist to perform the sound of a suspended bell being played with a mallet. 11

Chapter Two – The Survey Questions and Answers

Nancy Jessup, Christine Anderson, Nancy Hascall and Sueda Lutrell were presented with a seven question survey about their role in the solo handbell world. Here are the questions and their answers: 12

1. When did you start solo ringing?

Nancy Jessup (NJ) Fall 1978
Christine Anderson (CA) 1980
Nancy Hascall (NH) 1989
Sueda Lutrell (SL) August 1995

2. Why/What prompted it?

NJ – At our first AGEHR conference (Area XII, Fresno, June 1978), we saw our first handbell solo and attended a class on solo ringing.

CA – I had been ringing in a handbell choir since late 1972 at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, when I decided to return to college to finish my music degree – at the time I was a voice major and had 4 young children. In my last year, my voice teacher suggested I don’t do a senior recital, but to choose a topic to do a thesis to fulfill that credit. I picked the history and practice of the English handbell. As part of that requirement, I had to produce a video demonstrating various handbell techniques, both ringing in and conducting my bell choir. As so often happens, one of the ringers couldn’t be at the recording session, so a friend of mine, Dan Miller, agreed to fill in. I’ll never forget what he said next: “Oh, by the way – I can ring ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ as a solo, would you like that on the video?” Whoever heard of ringing a solo on handbells? I had no idea what to expect, but sat with my mouth open when he rang that solo. The next week I went to the bell room and tried to ring a solo – and realized I already knew how, thanks to fabulous training by Don Allured and others, in workshops we had had over the years. It was as though I put out an empty hand, and God placed a handbell in it, and said to ring for His glory. Little did I know where it would all lead.

NH – I had been hearing solo performances (of varying quality) at festivals for years, and always thought it would be fun to try, but was too busy with young children and a full-time career to pursue it. About all I had time for was the usual singular solo ringing class offered at each festival. Finally I just couldn’t wait any more, so I borrowed the church’s bells over the summer, set them up in my basement and started practicing whenever I had a few minutes. I have never stopped since.

SL – I had rung with church bell choirs since I was in high school. Upon moving to Georgia from Texas in 1991, my first organ position required that I direct the bell choir. I had never directed before because I’m quite introverted and shy and hated being up in front of people, unless I was playing piano or organ. With much fear and trembling, I survived leading my first bell rehearsal, and then found out that it was actually fun. However, I missed ringing when I directed. I attended my first AGEHR event in the summer of 1993 and saw solo/ensemble ringing for the first time. That planted the seed that there was possibly something I could do on my own to keep up the ringing while I directed. I dabbled with a solo or two for a couple of years before finally learning and performing Christine Anderson’s “How Firm a Foundation” for a morning worship service.

3. Who did you learn from? If self taught, who influenced you?

NJ – The class was taught by Kathie Fink, who also rang “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” as a solo. In December 1978, Kathie gave me an hour private solo lesson. What I saw, heard and learned there changed my ringing technique forever. Any of us who learned to ring in the 70’s are basically self-taught. Most of us did not have access to private lessons or frequent association with other solo ringers. Donna Kinsey has influenced me in with the term “Slide and push” which is what I say when teaching ringing technique. From the bell resting on the shoulder, we “slide” down the chest, then “push” the bell out, using the back of the upper arm, keeping the casting upright throughout the strike point and stroke back to the shoulder or table.

CA – I didn’t learn solo ringing, I learned how to ring four bells musically with proper techniques for multiple bells as part of a handbell choir. I also have to say that a lot of my training came from singing under masterful choir conductors. I apply choral techniques to my ringing all the time, hence the name “Voices in Bronze.” I taught myself solo techniques, but was strongly influenced by Don Allured and Gerald Ray, my Minister of Music at Houston’s first Baptist Church. My marimba background was also a factor.

NH – I consider myself primarily self-taught – except for the occasional festival solo ringing class, in which the content never really extended much beyond a three-bell weave. Early inspirations were from a very good soloist here in Portland whose name I’ve forgotten, and Kathie Fink, whose performances first showed me that solo ringing could actually be musical. I was also influenced “in reverse” by countless other un-inspiring solo performances that left me wanting to believe it could be different. (i.e., “There’s got to be a better way!”)

SL – I took the techniques I learned from ensemble classes at the AGEHR event and applied them to solos I purchased. I also bought Christine Anderson’s solo ringing video and watched it a couple of times, but not really more than that. After a year or so of learning solos, I decided I should go for some coaching. I took several lessons in 1996 from Dr. T.N. Retif, who was director at that time of the Baron Ringers at Brewton Parker College in south Georgia. He was not a solo ringer, but was able to pull incredible musicality from his college ringers. He did not dwell on technique during our coaching sessions, but heavily emphasized phrasing, nuance, and expression. In 1997, I traveled to Oregon for a few days of coaching with Nancy Hascall. I had learned her arrangements of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Joshua!.” I was particularly impressed with her traveling 4-in-hand technique and the way it improved legato when used instead of the weave in certain passages.

4. Please describe your basic philosophy of solo ringing.

NJ – Handbell ringing, solo ringing in particular, is a visual art. What the audience sees and hears should match and create a musical experience. Any movement that distracts from that visual musical experience should be eliminated or minimized.

CA – Solo ringing should not be attempted by anyone who does not already know excellent handbell choir techniques. It should also not be approached without studying the special techniques, rules of the game, just for soloing. I’ve seen some pretty awful examples of ringers picking up any old song and trying to ring it in a way that makes sense to them, but ignores the basic rules of good solo ringing. A beginner should always start with a published solo that includes choreography and performance suggestions. A soloist should memorize the music, “glue” every note together in perfect legato style, ring smoothly, gracefully, not distract from the music by physical appearance or jerky, unmusical motions/sounds. If one can’t ring the music at a “normal” tempo musically, either forget playing that piece, or don’t perform it until the tempo is up to par. Musicality rules! As a servant of Jesus Christ, I don’t want to distract from the message of the music I’m ringing.

NH – Solo handbells, while a unique instrument in many ways, should be held fully accountable as an instrument of musical expression alongside other more traditional instruments. Phrasing, dynamics, style – all aspects of musical performance are part of the solo ringer’s art, and must be considered. Too often we sacrifice the expectation of musicality to the simple novelty of one person handling, alone, an instrument more often seen played by a group – i.e., “Imagine playing all those bells all by yourself!” My goal is to express my inner musicianship and emotion through the vehicle of handbells, just as any good violinist or pianist or singer does, without making excuses for the difficulty of handling an instrument of so many separate parts, or falling back on the “novelty factor” that impresses audiences without the musicality normally expected of a solo instrumentalist. This requires developing techniques that minimize attention to the ringer and maximize the expressiveness of the instrument. If the performance is not musically satisfying to performer and audience alike, no amount of impressive bell-juggling is worth the effort.

I find it interesting that solo ringing is so often viewed as little more than a novelty by the mainstream musical community, and lacks the same respect as other instrumental pursuits. But it’s not all that surprising when you think about it. How often do you hear a budding violinist asked to present in a worship service the very first solo he ever learns? Yet that is exactly what often happens when a ringer attempts his first solo number on the bells. What we ringers need to realize is that truly making music on solo handbells requires the same kind of dedication, practice, attention to technique, and inner musicality that any other instrument requires. We need to raise our musical expectations beyond the “quaint,” and develop a pedagogy that will help ringers to develop the means to truly express themselves musically through this medium. We need to develop handbells of better quality and consistency, whatever the price, to enhance the expressiveness of the musician. We need more excellent performance models for students to emulate, and teachers to guide them in their progress. The art of solo ringing is only beginning to progress beyond its infancy, and will only move forward as far as our imagination and expectations allow. The future is bright, and limitless, if we will but let go of our preconceived notions of what is or is not possible, and just reach for the music.

SL – We should always strive to achieve the same level of musicality in solo ringing as with other instruments. The standards of excellence should not be lower for bells than for flute, violin, or any other solo instrument. Phrasing, nuance, and communication from the heart should take first place.

5. Please describe your personal style of solo ringing. What aspect(s) of your solo ringing style do you feel were created or advanced by you?

NJ – My ringing is characterized by starting at the shoulder, or as close to the shoulder as possible, for each note. The ringing movement is always directly in front of the shoulder holding the bell (i.e. not aiming at the place where the bell comes from or goes to). The body (feet, trunk) moves parallel to the table. There is no reaching across the body, or out to the side of the body to pick up, ring, or table damp a bell. It seems to me the emphasis on keeping the casting upright and moving throughout the entire stroke is peculiar to me. I believe that with practice, almost anyone can ring what I call “flash and show,” or fast music that does not allow for dynamic sensitivity. In my opinion, it is much more difficult to play slow, melodic and musical pieces than fast ones. My emphasis has always been on music for worship.

CA – This is a hard question to answer, because I ring in a different style according to the music, my audience, the setting of the performance. I can be very, very showy, flamboyant, do outrageous techniques – or very calm, meditative, with slow flowing motions. When I ring fast, I ring either very, very close to the table or use all kinds of 2-in-hand techniques. I use bell trees, 2-and-3-in-hand, shelley. Slower notes are rung with graceful motions. I try to use all the time and space a note value allows making my motions beautiful to watch as well as to hear. I wear ballet slippers (I think I was the first one to do that) and literally dance with my ringing. All my motions are choreographed, I use economy of motion, but every motion has meaning. I think I was the one to introduce these things to the solo ringing world: fancy gloves, sparkly outfits, ballet slippers, lavalier microphone hidden in my hair, speed, accompaniment music (first tapes, now CDs), instructional and performance videos, choreography. The first book on solo ringing was by Lois Holland, before my “red book”, but it was my book and videos and single copies that brought solo ringing to where it is today. It was God’s grace, and I still can hardly believe how He did all this! My solo concerts are a means for me to share the Gospel, and to give personal testimony to His grace. I tell stories, introduce hymn texts, and share my faith between songs.

NH – My style has been described as lyrical, smooth, graceful, and dance-like. I use a lot of 4-in-hand to avoid the awkwardness inherent in weaving. When I first realized there were some significant consistencies in the way I was combining 4-in-hand techniques with weaving, I dubbed it “traveling-4-in-hand” and began to explore all kinds of new ways to use it in performing pieces I (and others) had previously deemed unsuitable for solo bells. I’ve selected a lot of classical pieces that I thought would sound nice on bells if they could only be performed with musicality, and then proceeded to develop new traveling four-in-hand techniques to solve the physical challenges in them that hampered smooth performance. Also, of necessity, I developed a notation system to record the choreography in the score, so I could both remember what I had worked out and share it with others through my published solo arrangements. It has evolved over time to a fairly consistent system, which I teach whenever the opportunity arises, and I believe many other soloists are finding it useful.

SL – I will share what several others have told me – phrasing and legato seem to be hallmarks of my ringing. I hope that is true. I don’t think I’ve created anything new, but simply try to deliver whatever I play with clean technique, lines that are legato and well phrased, and with a definite idea or message to convey. I like to think of singing through the bells. If certain passages won’t “sing”, even after experimenting with all sorts of technical approaches, it’s probably best for me not to attempt to play it on solo bells.

6. In your opinion, what are the important elements of solo ringing and which is the most important?

NJ – Legato, musical ringing is critical. An upright casting throughout the entire stroke is the most important element.

CA – I feel passionate about music being memorized and being rung with a smooth legato style. NEVER cross your hands, ALWAYS lay out an entire keyboard without leaving out bells not used in that song. Keep bells in keyboard order except for temporary moving bells around for ease in reaching. Look your best, sound your best, learn how to handle mistakes gracefully.

NH – The basic (“default,” if you will) technique of solo ringing is weaving – ringing one bell at a time with alternate hands. Legato ringing is very important – i.e., not tabling or damping a bell until the next one has already been struck. Fluidity of motion produces the most artistic aural and visual experience. Following-through on each stroke, bringing the bell quickly to a vertical orientation, and keeping it moving are all important for tone color. In my view, liberal use of 4-in-hand is essential to reducing excess motion and facilitating a smoother delivery. I think the most important aspect to consider is phrasing – ringing a melody with the same expression as you would sing it. As with all other instruments, dynamics, phrasing, tone color, articulation must come into play, but are often neglected. Damping is another important issue, and one many soloists misunderstand, with the result of preventing a smooth delivery by overdamping. And I believe that the visual and aural aspects of solo ringing are thoroughly interconnected – what sounds good looks graceful, and what looks graceful, sounds good.

SL – Fluid technique, a solid grasp of what the music should convey, and the ability to combine the two convincingly in performance.

7. Please trace the development of your solo ringing – how have you changed your solo ringing during your career? Are there any ‘milestones’ that you have reached that are reflected in particular musical examples?

NJ – From my lesson with Kathie Fink in 1978, the emphasis for me has been on sound first, then visual, or that the technique creates a good sound and visual image. I think that the best solo ringers have a soft touch that allows a sensitive musicality on this percussive instrument. Dynamic nuance from note to note marks an excellent ringer. Since I consider myself a teacher rather than a performer, it has been my honor to work with many solo students, primarily at Concordia University, Irvine, but also in master classes and private lessons throughout the United States. My ‘milestones’ are that some of my students are more advanced, proficient, and musical than I. Another ‘milestone’ would be that my Master’s thesis is the first research of handbell technique and is a beginning step in educational research. If you haven’t seen it, you can go to [expired link] for “A Comparative Study Of Aural Recognition Between the Weave And Three Bell Techniques On English Handbells.”

CA – I’ve progressed from ringing everything one note at a time to incorporating more 2-in-hand ringing. I’ve come a long way in ringing tempos and syncopation, there is a maturity in my ringing now that wasn’t there years ago, but how do you describe it? If you watch my first video, and watch the latest one, you’ll see what I mean. I’m more comfortable with my craft, less uptight about mistakes. A friend once told me – after a horrible mistake I made in front of about a thousand people – that I don’t have to be perfect to be excellent. That was freeing advice! I’ve learned to lighten up, to accept less than ideal ringing situations with grace and make the best of it. When I started using more 2-in-hand, I re-choreographed some older solos, and realized the potential for new ones, especially when it came to 8th notes. One song in particular was a watershed moment when I re-did it: “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus”, with all those triplets. Totally changed my ringing! Now I could ring faster, smoother, with more feeling. I think life experiences have also played a part in my maturity as a ringer. There’s a passion in me that comes through my bells that never did before. And it’s not me. It’s all the Lord, and I give Him ALL the glory!

NH – I began by making up exercises to practice weaving, table & shoulder damping, and build up the speed at which I could play smoothly. At first I spent more time on exercises than on repertoire, because I really wanted to develop a technique that would allow me to play musically. But I also worked my way through Christine Anderson’s entire “red book” (Songs for the Solo Ringer) that first summer, treating each piece as an exercise in playing a musical line on the bells. I also read a book called The Art of Solo Ringing (or something like that) by Ken and Lois Holland, which was helpful. It had some good basic technical instruction, and emphasized legato ringing. In 1991 at the Long Beach National Festival, I had a coaching session with Nancy Jessup, during which she told me I should be bringing each bell up to a vertical position BEFORE initiating the ringing stroke. I took her advice to heart, but found that it caused my bells to backring as I picked them up. In an effort to solve that problem, I gradually tightened the springs until I could weave consistently without backringing – but nobody else could ring my bells because they were too tight, and I couldn’t play anything faster than a quarter note without getting tied up in knots. Then I attended a workshop with Christine Anderson and realized two things — she was very fast, and her bells were hair-trigger loose. So I re-thought the issue, and began to gradually loosen my springs again. In the process, I (unconsciously at the time) developed a technique in which is now the basis of my own unique ringing style, and which values both the verticality of the castings throughout the stroke AND the facility of ringing quickly off the table. The main difference between my style and what Nancy J taught is that I do not bring the bell up BEFORE initiating the strike – instead, it happens all at the same time, in one singular upward movement, where the rising casting “catches” the clapper as it falls back on its own after being propelled upward during the initial lift off the table. The main difference between my style and Christine’s is that she tends to allow the bells to remain horizontal during shorter strokes (which actually matters less in her situation because she usually wears a microphone in her hair that picks up the sound off the side of the bell even when it is horizontal.) Also I think Christine tends to use Shelley more often than 4-in-hand, and to preset her multiple bell setups on the table rather than re-configuring constantly as she rings, as I do. I don’t believe Nancy Jessup uses any 4-in-hand at all in her solo work. (These observations, I must admit, are from the last time I heard each of them ring, which is several years past, so things might well have changed since then.) In retrospect, I actually began using 4-in-hand very early in my solo ringing experience, and it rapidly shaped both my style and my repertoire. It was my solution to the problem of not being able to play 8th notes and dotted rhythms smoothly using weaving alone. The first piece in which I used extensive 4-in-hand was “Gesu Bambino”, which also became my first published arrangement. The next was “Joshua!”, which was truly a milestone for me. When I recognized the similarities between Gesu and Joshua, a light turned on in my brain that said “we have a new technique here.” That’s when traveling 4-in-hand was born, and I have been developing it further ever since. When I mastered “Maple Leaf Rag,” I became convinced that with enough innovation and practice, one can eventually probably play just about any style of music on solo bells.

As I have progressed in my pursuit of lyricism, my attitude toward damping has changed radically. Originally I was a devoted slave to what Christine called “the sanctity of the note value.” But I have evolved to the point where I seldom consciously damp bells unless there is a pointed need to eliminate a dissonance. (Consider that pianists don’t use the damper pedal with every melodic tone, but only where the harmony changes.) Because bells that are tabled are automatically damped anyway, the minimizing of damping is really only possible with the use of traveling four-in-hand, which is one of the ways traveling 4-in-hand serves to smooth out the musical line.

SL – The first major milestone piece for me was “All Creatures of Our God and King,” arranged for me by Andrew Kimsey. It has an accompaniment track of 16 MIDI voices. I believe he wrote it in 1996 – before I had lessons with Dr. Retif or Nancy Hascall. There were changing meters, all sorts of 4-in-hand situations, plus a big section in the middle that could only be accomplished by stringing together a large bell tree. The fact that I had to figure out all the “choreography” myself at that stage in my ringing career was quite a stretch. Mastering traveling 4-in-hand did wonders for my legato. Dr. Retif’s emphasis on phrasing and nuancing every note so that it fits properly within the musical phrase profoundly influenced my musicality. At this point, I think about how to create different sounds – such as with the bell “sleds” on “Lauda Anima” – and other ideas still in the experimental stage. Working with Arnold Sherman on the RRM Solo Collection was a wonderful experience in the creative process of composition. We worked “in person” on so much of that collection. Together, we were able to experiment with what would sing, what wouldn’t, how the accompaniment and solo line could interplay, etc. Arnold emphasized that the process was one of constant revision and we should never hesitate to try any idea at all. Likewise, one should always be willing to experiment with new approaches to technique, a new idea for playing or phrasing a certain passage, etc. I try not to stay “in the box” too much.

Chapter Three – The Program

The selections on the concert program were chosen to show the similarities and differences between solo ringing and choir ringing; how they are used in small ensembles and to explore the possibilities in the future for solo ringing. Special consideration was given to trying unique ideas in the solo repertoire. The choir pieces were chosen because I composed or arranged them.

1. “Symphonia on Hyfrydol” 13 (STEP November 1998) arranged by Kevin McChesney (Duet) is the most requested ‘reprint’ from the STEP catalog – McChesney states “the tune Hyfrydol (Welsh for ‘good cheer’) was written around 1830 by Rowland W. Prichard when he was less than twenty years of age. There are a host of texts for this exuberant and triumphant tune.” 14 “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” are two of the texts found in the Presbyterian Hymnal. 15 This arrangement has the upper ringer play the melody while the lower player plays countermelodies or harmony. The piece ends with each ringer playing about an octave of bells suspended on a bell tree. A bell tree stand is an absolute requirement, and is a wonderful visual as it is preset for the entire piece. The piece shifts from 3/4 time to 6/8 and a ritornello pattern is used as the a steady stream of sixteenth notes are played on the bell trees which constantly build up to a resounding and full ending.

2. “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross” 16 arranged by Cynthia D. Curtis (Solo) is a lovely setting that flows easily between the handbells and piano accompaniment. This piece is a great study in legato playing. Although the melody could be played just by weaving, judicious use of 4-in-hand will allow the visual aspect to remain uncluttered and smooth. By traveling through the keys of C, Db, Bb and Eb, it also provides the listener to hear the lush sound of the flat keys, especially the contract in tone color between C and Db.

3. “Swing Low” 17 arranged by Randy Richards (Trio) is an example of linear writing. Each of the ringers plays a melodic line throughout and includes a ‘water bend’ for all the voices. To perform this rare but very effective technique, the bell is rung and then the rim is dipped into a bowl of water. The further you dip the bell, the lower the pitch sounds but as you remove the bell from the water, the pitch raises back to the natural pitch of the bell. This is a little used technique because of the logistical problems that putting bowls of water on an already crowded table creates, as well as the annoyance of getting the table covers wet. You also must wipe the bells dry to prevent marring the bells with water spots. The bottom voice uses mallets throughout most of the piece providing a continuous forward motion while the upper two voices play melody and counter melody. The bass ringer has the opportunity to play some of the melody with malleted bells on the table. One of the repetitions of the chorus has each ringer playing the melody at the same time in three octaves. This challenges the ringers be both aurally and visually in exact unison.

4. “The Shepherd’s Dream” 18 by Alan Reese (Handbell Choir). This composition began as an eight measure melody written in preparation for the “Composition and Arranging” class in the summer of 2003. The melody wasn’t used for that class, but turned out to be the building block for this handbell piece. The form of the melody is AABA. The running eighth note accompaniment is the babbling brook or quiet stream that helps lull the shepherd to sleep. It starts out gently, but increases in volume for a strong B section. On the last A section, the high bells sing an obbligato above the melody. In homage to Cesar Franck’s “Three Chorales for Organ” 19, where the chorale tunes are stated in the middle of the work, I created a chorale based on the shape of the melody. The chorale is played on handchimes while the high bells add a sparkling shimmer with suspended mallets. The piece closes with a repeat of the A section that decrescendos to the end. The last two notes of the melody are repeated as the dream is drifting away, and the shepherd is falling into a deep dreamless sleep.

5. “How Firm a Foundation” 20 (Agape 1526) arranged by Christine Anderson, piano accompaniment by Anna Laura Page (Solo). Christine Anderson says “ ‘How Firm a Foundation’ was arranged so long ago I can’t remember specifically how it came about except that I always choose a hymn that I know and love, and that has an excellent message. In this case, the words are straight from Scripture. Also, I wanted to find a hymn where the melody could be rung on just 6 bells, interlocked, in hand. I can process ringing the first verse. The second verse I wanted syncopated and fun, the third verse needed to be triumphant and confidant in God’s care and providence for us when we put our trust in Him.” 21 This piece is just as she described, stating the melody at the beginning with six in hand is very effective. The syncopated rhythmic treatment of the second stanza forms a bridge between the first and third stanzas. It is much more interesting than just having a key change and restatement of the stanza.

6. “A Call for Advent” 22 arranged by Alan Reese (Handbell Choir). This piece began as a way for my eight member youth handbell choir to use the new 4th octave bass bells at our church. Creative bell assignments were needed, but we were able to ring the piece using G3 through G6. During Bell Week of summer 2003 this piece was reworked and transposed to make it a 5 octave piece. The mood of the piece is looking forward to the promise of Christ’s birth, foretold by the Old Testament prophets. It begins in a monastery with swinging bells droning an open fifth. The monks enter, singing “Nun Komm, der Heiden Heiland.” With more hope, the tune “Veni Emmanuel” answers back and forth, phrase by phrase with the first tune, driven forward by echoes now, instead of toll swings. This builds up to the joy of the refrain, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel has come to thee, O Israel!” Full of promise, the first song is restated “Savior of the Nations, Come,” but ends hesitantly, realizing that the full promise has not yet completed as we now look ahead to the second coming.

7. “Praise Him All Creatures” 23 arranged by Michael Kaestner (Quartet) is an exciting arrangement for three octave handbell quartet that combines “Lasst uns Erfreuens” and “Old Hundredth,” two melodies used for the text of the Doxology. As much as “Swing Low” was three linear lines, this is an example more of teamwork. The melody is heard being passed around among the group, played by pairs of ringers, and then both melodies are played at the same time.

8. “O Isis and Osiris” 24 by W.A. Mozart arranged for solo handbells by Alan Reese. Due to limitations of space and budgets, handbell soloists usually play on a 3 ½ octave set of bells from G4 to C8, but upon occasion will ring on 4 full octaves going down to C4. When discussing with my advisor, Dr. John Behnke what my concert would include, he mentioned that since I usually play bass bells, and playing bass bells is a lot like solo ringing, I should consider finding a solo that would work on bass bells. Accepting the challenge, I looked into the opera world and found a bass aria from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” In this aria, Sarastro is asking the gods Isis and Osiris for their blessing on Tamino as he begins a journey. Playing a solo on bass bells is a physical challenge because of the need for increased lateral space for the bigger bells and the increased weight of them. This has the soloist deal with the difficulties of time, size and space. The larger bells require more space on the table, and also more airspace to ring. You have to start the larger bells in motion either sooner or faster than smaller bells to ring on time. More strength and specific bass bell technique is required just to ring these larger bells – the technique I refer to is having to keep your body more under the bell so you can use more of your musculature to support your arm, back and shoulder muscles to lift and maneuver the bells. You also must ring without using any multiple-in-hand techniques. The usual bell solo table set up is nine feet for 3 ½ octaves, but I needed almost 18 feet. The biggest bells weigh almost 9 pounds apiece. Sometimes a soloist will have music available on a stand or the table for them to refer to as needed. However, memorization of this piece was an absolute requirement. Another problem to be mastered was to keep the visual component looking smooth and free while moving across almost twice the lateral space usually used by a handbell soloist. This piece was played on a range of bells from Bb2 to C5 and illustrated the difficulties in playing a solo on bass bells.

9. “‘Round Midnight” 25, “Here’s That Rainy Day” 26 and “My Funny Valentine” 27 are three jazz standards. In addition to playing a solo on bass bells, I wanted to explore another untouched realm in solo handbell ringing, that of jazz improvisation. This goes totally against the idea that a handbell soloist must plan and choreograph every move in a solo. Ringing a solo handbell piece is usually done by choreographing both the hand’s movements as well as the body’s movements well in advance of performing a piece. Jazz improvisation is composition done at the time of performance. The melody is not the ‘end result’, but merely the framework and serves as a point of departure. This could prove to be the ultimate challenge to the solo handbell ringer because you can’t prepare specifically for what you are going to play other than by using a foundation of solid techniques and preparatory exercises giving you the largest arsenal of choices during the performance. When playing solo handbells, you need to think of what you are currently playing, and of the bells you are going to play. With improvisation, you also are responsible for composing those notes to be played and must be able to think far enough ahead so that you can create appropriate musical ideas. “‘Round Midnight” has always been a favorite jazz tune of mine, but I was unable to perform the A section on the bells. Therefore we decided that the pianist would play the melody, and that I would play an accompanying part (this is referred to as ‘comping’). I played the melody of the bridge, and then went back to comping on the return of the A section. “Here’s That Rainy Day” and “My Funny Valentine” are both fairly easy melodies to play on handbells, and were good vehicles for improvisation. I believe that I am the first person to attempt jazz improvisation with solo handbells and that there exist good possibilities for the future. I don’t know of anyone who has played or is playing improvised jazz on handbells.

10. “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” 28 arranged by Kevin McChesney (Quartet) is a fun to play arrangement that sounds more difficult to play than it is. The fastest tempo that can be used is dependant on how fast ringer three can weave their three eight note pickup figure. Although the song is repeated, by playing the suggested dynamics each time through it sounds fresh each time, and then it finishes with the refrain being played in a higher key. The biggest challenge that faces the ensemble playing this arrangement is to master the dynamic changes while keeping the tempo constant.

11. “Joshua!” 29 arranged by Nancy Hascall (Solo) is one of the two pieces that brought Nancy to the realization of traveling 4-in-hand. It is the only technique that will allow this piece to be played with a smooth line and at a musical tempo and it serves as the perfect start for the ringer to learn to understand and use traveling 4-in-hand. Changing octaves, a malleted section and final stanza with key change keep the interest of the audience’s ear, while the flowing visual punctuated with cleverly placed stopped techniques satisfy the eye.

12. “Come Ye Thankful People, Come” 30 arranged by Alan Reese (Handbell Choir). Each year, one of our bell choirs plays at an Ecumenical Community Thanksgiving Eve service. In 2004, it was my youth bell choir’s turn, and I was not satisfied with the choices in our music library. Therefore, I decided to arrange this myself. This arrangement represents my latest step in the learning process. The introduction uses the melodic and rhythmic phrase from the beginning of the hymn, and is used later as transitional material. The piece starts out simply, unison rhythms at the beginning, but mm 17-18 give the middle bells a running eighth note pattern to keep momentum moving forward. Then a transition from the key of F to Ab, but the bass bells play the melody in augmentation while the trebles play an altered version at the beginning speed. The choir comes together for a big statement of the last eight measures of the melody where the key shifts to Bb. There is a two measure transition, setting up the new mood which uses LV to accompany the melody which is now played in octaves on hand chimes. When the melody starts, the meter is changed to 3/4. Two phrases are played this way, and then we go immediately back to 4/4, all on bells where we finish with some longer chords and hold the tonic Bb in 4 octaves. Three ‘colorful’ chords prepare for the last tonic choir, but not before the penultimate is reinforced with a toll swing as Bb6/7 are rung to emphasize the last two beats until we arrive ‘home’ for the final chord, which ends with a ‘table-land damp.’

Chapter Four – Final Reflections

I am quite pleased with how the concert turned out. I was able to demonstrate many things learned at Concordia especially from the three Handbell week classes: Conducting, Composing and Performance Choir. Another important thing to me was to involve and challenge the ringers in our church’s bell program. I ring in the adult bell choir and direct the youth so I was able to determine which ringers would be the best to participate. I am glad that I did factor my perception of their ability to handle performance pressure since they ended up putting more pressure on themselves than I ever would have put on them. Our two bell choirs are used to ringing in church every other month during the school year, participating in an annual bell festival and sharing one concert with each other at the end of the year. They are not very experienced in concert performance – that is not the thrust of our bell program, so ringing three pieces at concert performance level was a good challenge for them. The three bell choir pieces went extremely well. It was enjoyable for the bass ringers to have the opportunity to play the borrowed 6th octave bass bells. “Symphonia on Hyfrydol” was a great way to start – in fact the first applause came during the piece, as we were making the change from the tables to the bell trees. “Swing Low” was fun, for us and the audience – everyone enjoys the water bend. It was a good stretch piece for the third member of our trio. “Praise Him All Creatures” was learned by a quartet formed out of my youth bell choir the previous year. One member graduated, so I played his position and enjoyed having them play it again. Senior High students are great for bell ringing – once they trust you, they will try almost anything you ask of them, and will accept a challenge with unparalleled determination. “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” was the most difficult small ensemble piece because the group had previously performed it, and had been coached on the piece at a Handbell Exploration event in Hershey, PA. One ringer in particular was quite reluctant to do anything different, because she felt that she had learned to do it a particular way, and was not confident and unwilling to try to play some things differently.

Of the solo pieces, “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross” was easy and beautiful to learn. In the future, I will videotape myself to make sure that all visual elements work well. “How Firm A Foundation” was also a successful piece, but reminded me to pay more attention to memorizing the number of measures rest between entrances. “O Isis and Osiris” was a tremendous amount of fun since I rang 5th (and one 6th) octave bass bells in solo. Physically demanding, but very rewarding – it’s Mozart, it has to be good music! Plus, it’s from the world of opera – a genre I’ve come to really like. The Jazz Medley worked out surprisingly well. The piano player is from the United States Military Academy Band’s Jazz Knights jazz ensemble and is a terrific jazz pianist. He is very sensitive to what is being played by the other performer and adept at supporting what the soloist is doing. This medley was the most difficult to play for me, but members of the audience told me afterward that they really enjoyed it. Further exploration in jazz handbells will follow. “Joshua!” was a difficult selection for me to play on the concert. It needed to go late in the program, and I think that I was mentally and physically too tired by the time it came around. I don’t feel that I did the arrangement justice. I have incorporated traveling 4-in-hand into my solo ringing and will continue to work to make it second nature.

The people that participate in the music program at our church are involved in many activities of the church. I already put large demands on their time and talents, but all the preparation for this concert were above and beyond their regular rehearsal time. I would have liked to have more time with the quartets and the trio, but still the ringers rose to the occasion. I did underestimate greatly the time needed to move set up between pieces, even though I tried to alternate between the solo bell set and the choir bell set. All the solos were rung on a solo set, while the rest were rung on the full choir set up. Until I gain more experience doing this, I should make sure I write down what I want to say about and between pieces and stay close to that script. This concert was a success and a benefit to all who were involved.


1. [2018 note:  this link is no longer valid but is retained here for completeness of citations.]
2. Jessup, Nancy, “Re: Master’s Paper,” Email to the author, 1 Mar 2005.
3. Anderson, Christine. Songs for the Solo Ringer, Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Company (Agape), 1987
4. Anderson, Christine, “Re: Master’s Paper,” Email to the author, 2 Mar 2005.
5. Yon, Pietro, arr. Nancy Hascall, Gesu Bambino, Tustin, CA: National Music Publishers, #HB-387
6. Hascall, Nancy, “Re: Master’s Paper,” Email to the author, 21 Mar 2005.
7. Lutrell, Sueda, “Re: Master’s Paper,” Email to the author, 20 Mar 2005
8. Jessup, Nancy, “Re: Master’s Paper,” Email to the author, 1 Mar 2005.
9. Anderson, Christine, “Re: Master’s Paper,” Email to the author, 2 Mar 2005.
Anderson, Christine, A Splash of Bronze (Video), Carol Stream, IL, Hope Publishing Company
10. Hascall, Nancy, “Re: Master’s Paper,” Email to the author, 21 Mar 2005.
Nancy Hascall personal conversation 7 Jan 2005
11. Lutrell, Sueda, “Re: Master’s Paper,” Email to the author, 20 Mar 2005
12. Jessup, Nancy, “Re: Master’s Paper,” Email to the author, 1 Mar 2005,
Anderson, Christine, “Re: Master’s Paper,” Email to the author, 2 Mar 2005,
Hascall, Nancy, “Re: Master’s Paper,” Email to the author, 21 Mar 2005,
Lutrell, Sueda, “Re: Master’s Paper,” Email to the author, 20 Mar 2005
13. McChesney, Kevin, Solo To Ensemble Project, (STEP), Broomfield, CO: Nov 1998, Vol. 1, Issue 3
14. ibid., p.4
15. McKim, LindaJo, ed. The Presbyterian Hymnal, Hymns Psalms and Spritual Songs, Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990, Hymns #2, #376
16. Curtis, Cynthia, Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross, Tustin, CA: National Music Publishers, HB-485, 1998
17. Richards, Randy, Swing Low, Broomfield, CO: Solo To Ensemble Project (STEP) Vol. 2, Issue 2, 1999
18. Reese, Alan, The Shepherd’s Dream, publication pending, Tustin, CA : National Music Publishers, HB-619
19. Franck, César, Les Trois Chorals, Paris, France : Durand S. A. Editions Musicales
20. Anderson, Christine, How Firm a Foundation, Carol Stream, Agape, #1526, 1991
21. Anderson, Christine, “Re: Master’s Paper,” Email to the author, 2 Mar 2005.
22. Reese, Alan, A Call for Advent, unpublished manuscript
23. Kastner, Michael, Praise Him All Creatures, Broomfield CO: Solo To Ensemble Project, Vol. 2, Issue 3, 1999
24. Mozart, W.A. arranged by Alan Reese, O Isis and Osiris, unpublished manuscript
25. Thelonious S. Monk (1917-1981)
26. Jimmy Van Heusen (1930-1990)
27. Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) and Lorenzo Hart (1895-1943)
28. McChesney, Kevin, Every Time I Feel the Spirit, Incline Village, NV: Cantabile Press, #CP6065, 1993
29. Hascall, Nancy, Joshua!, Tustin, CA: National Music Press, HB-398, 1994
30. Reese, Alan Come Ye Thankful People, Come, unpublished manuscript

Resources for Solo Ringing

Allen, David M. Advanced Solo Ringing, Tustin, CA: National Music Publishers, 1998
Anderson, Christine. Songs for the Solo Ringer, Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Company, 1987
Holland, Lois and Ken. The Art of Solo Handbell Ringing, Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1982
Hascall, Nancy. Nancy Hascall’s Virtuoso Solo Series, Various Titles, West Hollywood, CA: Above the Line Publishing
Lutrell, Sueda and Arnold Sherman. Red River Music Solo Collection, Tyler, TX: Red River Music, 2004
Kastner, Michael and Kevin McChesney. Solo Ringing! Musically, Irmo, SC: Jeffers Handbell Supply, 1994
Kastner Michael and Kevin McChesney. Solo To Ensemble Project (STEP), Broomfield, CO

Copyright © 2005 Alan Reese. Used with permission.
Permission is granted by the author to print or share this paper.
Please include the copyright notice.