Solving problems in practice

If the bells make noise or roll when you set them on the table, remove your hand straight up, and be sure the bell is all the way down to the table before you release it. Set the bell down, don’t drop it.  It also helps to unwrap most of your fingers from the handle as the bell moves down to the table, so you’re holding the bell between the tips of the thumb and index finger. I’ll talk another time about how I prevent the bells from rolling in the way I set up my equipment.

Sometimes you get an “air bell” (no sound when you ring). Make sure the clapper is angled back so it travels the full width of the bell. “Air bells” come from the clapper falling forward into the side of the bell, with no momentum. A good cure for many ringing problems is to ring lower and add lift to the move.

If you find your arms getting tangled up, or doing a lot of passes, try starting the passage on the opposite hand.

Sometimes you can do a technique with one hand but not the other. When that happens, take your bells to a mirror, or video yourself. Look carefully at the angle of the bells, especially the clapper position and how your hands are holding the bells. Match the awkward hand to what the other hand is doing. That will usually fix the problem.

If you’re consistently late with a note, you may be holding onto a bell too long, making you late in picking up the next bell. Try releasing the first bell sooner to buy time for the next bell. If you’re late damping or changing bells, try ringing closer to the table. You can also step further (or sooner) in the direction of the bell you want to pick up.

One way to work through a problem spot is to practice one octave higher than written. That’s especially useful in ringing larger, heavier bells; it’s less tiring to work out the part. Space the practice bells at the same distance as the larger bells, so you get used to the relationship between them. You obviously can’t use any techniques on the practice bells that you don’t use on the larger bells, like 4ih. (It is possible to 4ih the larger bells, within the limits of your own skills.) You can also work out parts on the piano. That’s helpful for rhythm issues, or for working on expression. You can even play your bell part on the piano while listening to a recording of the accompaniment and following on the score.

It’s hard to practice with the accompaniment at full tempo while you’re learning a piece. I have a recorder/playback device that can slow down the accompaniment. It distorts the sound somewhat, but it’s good enough for practicing. You can also ask someone to record the accompaniment for you at a slower tempo. If the bells and accompaniment start together, or if there are periods of silence in the accompaniment, include cue notes when recording.

Try drilling just a single measure (or part of a measure) repeatedly at the hardest spot in the music.

Establish practice points throughout the piece. At those spots, memorize the position of every bell not in home position, so you have a mental snapshot of what the table is supposed to look like, so you can quickly reset into that configuration. This is helpful for drilling problems spots, rehearsing in sections with an accompanist, and recovering from mistakes in performance.

Here’s a tip to work on a coordination problem. Slow it down, break it up, and syncopate it. Let’s say you want to play a G major rolled chord. You’re holding the bells B6/G7 and D7\G6. That means you have them set up for 4ih with the B6 over the G7 in the left hand, and G6 over D7 in the right hand. To roll the chord, you’re going to ring G6 right, ring B6 left, knock D7 right, knock G7 left. Got it? You’ll probably have difficulty making the chord sound right at the tempo you ultimately want to play it. Break it up so you ring only 2 bells in the sequence. G6 B6, pause, B6 D7, pause, D7 G7. Make sure they’re even in both rhythm and dynamic (volume). Repeat as needed.

Once that’s comfortable, play 3 bells in sequence with syncopation, holding one bell in each pattern for an extra beat. That might look like G6 (hold) B6 D7. Then G6 B6 (hold) D7. Then B6 D7 (hold) G7. Repeat as needed, taking breaks to rest your hands and wrists. Play G6 B6 D7 several times, then B6 D7 G7 several times, without the extra beat.

Now try ringing all 4 bells in sequence, again adding an extra beat each time, and moving where the extra beat occurs. This might look like G6 (hold) B6 D7 G7. Then G6 B6 (hold) D7 G7. Then G6 B6 D7 (hold) G7. Now you’re ready to play the whole thing, without extra beats. It should be smoother and faster than when you tried the first time. It will be even better tomorrow and next week, as you continue to work on it and train both your hands and your brain to do the sequence.

You can use a variation on this technique for rhythm problems, when short notes alternate with long notes. Try making the short notes long and the long notes short. When you resume the rhythm as written, it should be easier.

If the rhythm is ragged, subdivide. If the notes are 8ths, count in 16ths.

Remember that you’re building new brain connections, and that takes time. Learn a piece with as much lead time before the performance as possible. That allows you the luxury of working on a piece for a few weeks and then setting it aside to percolate for a week or two. In the meantime, your subconscious is still working on it, and it will be better when you come back to it.

Copyright © 2011 Nancy Kirkner,