People often ask how many hours a week I practice. I’m fortunate to have as much time as I want to devote to handbells, and I do a lot of development work besides ringing. I use a rotating schedule that incorporates the following.


Bells – 1.5 hour rehearsal/coaching session, weekly
Piano – 1 hour private lesson, weekly (from my wonderful handbell accompanist/coach)
Ballet – 1.5 hour group class, twice weekly
Percussion – 1.5 hour private lesson, monthly

In between, I practice on:

Bells – 1.5 hours, 5 times/week
Piano – 1 hour, 6 times/week
Percussion – 30 minutes, 3 times/week
Solfege/music dictation – 30 minutes, 3 times/week
Music theory (working through a college text and workbook) – 1 hour, 3 times/week

This works out to 3 to 4 hours a day. That’s a lot by handbell musician standards, but not as much as professional musicians practice on other instruments. I stay motivated by having written goals and doing a self-evaluation twice a year. I’ll talk more about that another time. In addition to lessons and practice, I spend time teaching, choosing repertoire, reading about musicianship, documenting my pieces in Sibelius software, organizing performances, promoting my work, corresponding with other musicians, maintaining equipment, and other related tasks. Keeping a log of all my practices helps me track what I’ve worked on and what still needs attention. I try to practice in the morning when I can concentrate better. Taking one day off each week from ringing rests my hands and wrists.

My piano lessons and practices cover sight reading, finger strength, rhythm, and musical expression. My piano teacher also explains the mysteries of music theory to me. Once a month, I attend a piano group where the members play for each other, and I can listen, up close, to musicians who are much better than I am. In my percussion lessons and practices, I work not only on mallet skills (table and bell tree) but also on quality of sound. My percussion instructor was trained in Japan, and tends to bring a different perspective to music, which is extremely valuable. She’s also an excellent connection to resources like custom mallet makers.

In my bell practices, I take time for stretching and drills. It’s important to develop good technique, which is the foundation for all repertoire. It’s easier to work on technique when you can isolate it from remembering notes. It’s also easier to listen for a legato line and for tone color. I plan to write about my favorite drills and maybe video some of them to put on YouTube. If you’re interested, be sure to subscribe to this blog and my YouTube channel solohandbell.

I generally develop 3 pieces concurrently, as follows: One I’ve finished choreographing that I’m starting to learn, a second one I’m trying to solidify, and a third one I’m polishing for performance. When I choreograph a piece, that generally uses up most of my practice time for several days, as I work it out. I’ll talk more in future posts about how I approach choreographing, learning, and memorizing a piece. This approach allows me to prepare 10 new pieces each year.

While learning a piece, I work only on a small section, not the whole piece. Early on, I try to identify and isolate the problem spots so I can work on them the most, especially if they require learning a new technique. That way, the whole piece will be ready at the same time. I sometimes pick up bells for a few minutes between practice sessions just to work on a problem spot. I might isolate just a couple of notes in a difficult transition, and practice getting from one to the other. While it’s more fun to practice by playing whole pieces, it’s not an efficient use of practice time. If you work on the small details, the whole piece turns out better.

I work at a tempo slow enough to play accurately, often with a metronome. From the beginning, I incorporate dynamics, phrasing, and musical expression. Even before I’m ready to rehearse a piece, I ask my accompanist/coach to listen to sections of it for accuracy and inflection. It’s very hard to unlearn the wrong version of a piece, so I try to make the piece sound like it will in performance, only slower.

I practice the mechanics involved in choreography at the same time I’m learning the notes. If during a measure, I need to move a bell or set up a new pair for a later measure, I incorporate that as I learn to play the measure. If I forget to prepare for a later measure, it’s just as much a mistake as leaving out a note.

When I make a mistake, I keep going, to practice recovery. I define full recovery as getting back to playing the piece with the accompaniment, with all the bells where they’re supposed to be at that point. Then I go back and isolate the section I flubbed. First I name the mistake in very specific terms: I reached too far and picked up the C6 instead of the D6, or I was supposed to ring both bells, but only the secondary one sounded because my hand was at the wrong angle, or whatever. It’s easier to fix a mistake that’s clearly understood than just to say “I messed up.” Then I want to play it 3 times in a row correctly before moving on. That weights my memory toward the correct version instead of the mistake. If I make a mistake again, the counter resets to zero. Something has to be correct 3 times in a row to be solid. Of course, sometimes that’s impossible to achieve without total frustration. If I can’t get it right, even at a snail’s pace, I’ll move on and come back to that part later, maybe tomorrow.

When I’m preparing for a concert, my practice time is devoted to run-throughs of the pieces in concert order, including the transition between setups. Practicing the transitions makes the whole concert look more polished. I start at a different point in the concert order each day so every piece gets attention while I’m still fresh, and I can allow time to address problems that crop up. I don’t try to play every piece at a single practice session until shortly before the concert. When I do, I put away any unnecessary bells and get out my extras table, so I can practice transitions, including ordering the bells on the extras table. (That’s my safety net, so I can find a bell quickly if I forget to put it on the main table. It also helps me remember which bells to take to a concert: all of them that are out.)

As a soloist, I always practice on real bells, the same bells I use in performance. If you ring in a handbell choir and don’t own an instrument, you may not have that luxury. You can practice your ringing stroke and bell changes by using salad dressing bottles filled with rice as practice handbells. Read more about this in the article on Practicing without bells. Working through individual problems outside of handbell rehearsal makes the rehearsal time more productive and rewarding. Just don’t overestimate the usefulness of fake handbells. Even a 5 year old child learning to play piano will practice on a real instrument.

I’ll write another time about how I tackle common ringing problems, and how I rehearse with my accompanist.

Copyright © 2011 Nancy Kirkner,