Setting ringers up for success

Struggling ringers often feel like their ringing problems are their own fault, but how the director runs the bell choir makes a huge difference in results. In this article, I’ll explore how assignments, music choices, and equipment problems affect struggling ringers and beginners.

Assigning for success: Bell choirs often place newcomers in positions no one else wants, like B6 C7, C4 D4, and E4 F4. Because these positions don’t ring as often, it’s easy to lose track of the music, and new ringers don’t get enough experience actually ringing. It’s far better to put a new ringer at busier positions like D5 E5 (my first choice), or F5 G5, or G6 A6 (if not expected to ring four-in-hand), or B4 C5 (if not intimidated at reading the bass staff). Music is easier to track when you play most of the time. Notes at the top or bottom of the staff are easier to read, especially when ringing thick chords. Bell choirs that want to welcome new members should reserve these easier-to-read positions for them.

To avoid boring experienced ringers, consider combining C4 D4 E4 F4 into one position, assigning it to someone skilled in weaving who also understands music well enough to know which notes to omit when necessary, or able to share with the G4 A4 ringer. Assign Bb6, B6, and C7 individually, piece by piece, to whichever ringer(s) have a free hand when needed, or combine them with G6 A6 for an experienced four-in-hand ringer.

Besides idle parts at the far ends of the choir, harder parts to read and/or ring include:
• A5 B5 – Notes buried in the center of the staff can be hard to decipher, especially for a ringer with poor vision or bifocals. Moreover, this position leads many key changes.
• Multiple staves at once – one of the participants in a beginning ringing class I taught struggled in her home bell choir. The director had assigned her C4 D4 B6 C7. You can see the director’s logic, because the parts don’t play very often, but they don’t add up to a manageable part for one ringer. Besides being hard to read, this assignment’s bells respond differently with the huge disparity in clapper travel time. If you need someone to read multiple staves for some reason, choose a strong music reader.
• Any position someone isn’t used to reading or ringing – If you rotate positions, leave struggling ringers where they are, and rotate everyone else. Rotate ringers at least 2 positions away from where they read last, so their eyes don’t wander back to the familiar notes. Assigning a piece so ringers hold the line note in the left hand and space note in the right hand will confuse some of them. (This happens in 12 bell music, for example.) Reassign the bells so everyone who needs to read left hand space/right hand line can do so. That may require an extra ringer, or someone who can manage bells at both ends of the range.

Choosing literature
• Be realistic about the group’s ability – It’s better to play a level 1 or 2 piece beautifully than struggle through a piece the group isn’t ready for. The audience sees only the results, not the difficulty rating.
• Commit only to the number of pieces you can reliably prepare – Working hard on a piece and then having it dropped or changed at the last minute demoralizes ringers. They feel like they failed, but they didn’t. The director needs to schedule sufficient rehearsals to master each piece. Don’t schedule assuming everything will go smoothly 100% of the time; it won’t! Allow slack for potential problems like missing ringers, equipment failures, or a rehearsal with little progress. Establish goals for each rehearsal and learn to evaluate readiness so you can assess the choir’s progress with a piece relative to the performance date. If you need to pull the plug, do it early in the process, allowing time to learn something easier.
• Don’t change or add anything at the last minute – Experienced directors already know not to layer on dynamics at the last rehearsal. Dynamics aren’t frosting on notes; they’re integral to the music. Practice with all the elements of musical expression you want in the end product, so they become habits. The only exception is tempo, which I’ll discuss in a future article on rehearsals. Don’t ask a ringer to take on extra bells at the last minute. Figure that out early in the rehearsal cycle, or a competent ringer will turn into a fumbling one. If you suddenly announce the bell choir will random ring during a hymn, struggling ringers are already praying they won’t mess up on the prepared music, and you just threw them a curve ball. Ask for volunteers instead.
• Favor tunes the bell choir knows how to sing – They’ll find it easier to track music and to express it fully if they know the tune well. An unknown melody will require extra time for familiarization.
• Safety in numbers – Directors, composers, and music editors sometimes assume music that’s easy to read is easy to ring. But new ringers often struggle with tracking the music and the mechanics of ringing. A solo musical line requires every ringer to deliver at the right time, or the piece falls apart. If someone misses a note, or loses count, or the bell doesn’t ring, they feel stupid, because the music looks easy. Instead of thin textures, choose pieces with thick chords. If someone misses a note, others will carry on, and eventually the ringer who stumbled will join in again.

Mechanical problems: Late or missing notes may result from ringer error, or they could reflect problems with the bells themselves. Check that the clapper moves freely but without double-ringing or back-ringing. Replace the spring or nyliner if it’s broken. (You can learn more about adjustments and maintenance from the handbell vendor’s website.) If a bell doesn’t ring at all, you may need to adjust the spring tension. Verify that the ringer has the bell facing “ring side up” (with the small bell symbol on the handle opposite the strikepoint). “Air bells” can also result from the wrong bell position. Try angling the clapper back at the beginning of the stroke, so it travels across the mouth of the bell as you ring. If it just falls forward, it won’t have enough momentum to ring properly. Another tip is to start the ringing stroke low and add lift to the move.

Ensure all ringers have sufficient table space. Ringers should be able to set down bells without looking at the table, and have room to step back without hitting a wall or tripping over a pew behind them. If you hear clanking, or see dings in the castings, that means there’s insufficient table space. A 3 octave choir needs at least 27 linear feet of table. If you set up in a U shape, remember that the corners are wasted; you need more space to compensate. If music binders sit directly on the table, there may not be enough table space for all the equipment. Try putting the binders on risers or floor music stands, or provide space under the table for storing bells and chimes not used in a piece.

The join in the foam can cause bells to roll. That happens especially when the pads are covered individually instead of under a single long table cover, if the foam was cut without a perfectly square edge, or if the tables are slightly different heights. If you can’t solve the problem (e.g. buy specialized handbell foam, which is cut properly, or use shims to adjust table height), add enough table space so bell stations fall on either side of the crack instead of straddling it. If bells still roll, either the foam is too hard, and/or ringers need to learn to set bells down completely before releasing the handle.

Next time, I’ll talk about rehearsal preparation and suggestions for maximizing rehearsal efficiency and effectiveness.

Copyright © 2014 Nancy Kirkner,