Traveling four-in-hand

In this article, I’m assuming you’re comfortable with the standard “ring and knock” method of four-in-hand. (I may come back to four-in-hand fundamentals another time.) Here, I’m going to focus on traveling four-in-hand. Remember that the first bell you pick up is the primary bell, the one held by your thumb and index finger. You may think of this as the bell you “ring” in “ring and knock.” The second bell you pick up is the secondary bell, between your index and middle fingers, or the “knock” bell.

In traveling four-in-hand (T4ih), you hold a bell in the primary position while picking up other bells, one at a time, in the secondary position. The bell in the primary position is called a “constant.” You notate it in the music by circling it, and use a downward arrow to indicate when it’s time to table it (replace it on the table). T4ih requires that the bells be set with the first row castings (natural notes) clear of the second row handles (sharps and flats), as recommended in Basic principles. We choose constants and secondary bells based on what makes most sense musically, instead of putting the heavier bell in the primary position, as we often do when ringing four-in-hand.

You can learn T4ih by setting two bells on the table (here G6 and C7), handles towards you and about 6 inches apart. Pick up one bell in each hand, say C6 in the left and E6 in the right, and hold them as constants. Ring the following pattern:


Notice that you pick up G6 and C7 as secondary bells, while holding E6 in the right hand. Loop the pattern above until it’s comfortable. Then switch hands.


Practice with only one hand changing bells until this movement is automatic. Then try it by placing two more small bells on the table, and doing T4ih with both hands. (Make up your own pattern.) The point is to get comfortable changing secondary bells while holding a primary bell. Learn to do this without thinking about it before moving on.

Once the mechanics are automatic, refine your technique over time:

• Listen to the sound you’re producing. You may need to adjust your ringing stroke to get a quality of sound comparable to ringing a single bell.
• Use a metronome to develop accuracy and speed.
• Learn to pick up the secondary bell with only a partial grip on it. Use your knuckles to pick it up, with your fingertips inside the handle to secure it.
• Keep the weight of the secondary bell over your forearm and elbow, rather than supporting it with your wrist. That will become more important as you use T4ih with heavier bells.
• Work on accurate damping, both in terms of timing and of where you replace bells on the table. Use a combination of finger damping, shoulder damping, and table damping, depending on what makes the most sense. Try damping the primary bell on the table as you pick up the secondary bell.
• Practice changing constants by ringing randomly around the table.

When you feel comfortable with the technique, look for opportunities to apply it in passages that have mirror image notes, ideally in a stepwise progression, or an arpeggio. For example:

t4ih example 3

Notice that F6 and Ab6 both ring twice in the left hand, and G6 rings twice in the right hand. You could hold F6 and G6 as constants, and pick up Ab6 and Bb6 as secondary bells. If you buy solo music with choreography noted, or you write it in yourself, it would look like this. Remember that the circle means “hold the bell” and the arrow means “set it down.”

t4ih example 4

As you try the example above, you may clash bells as you pick up Bb6. You can correct this by doing one of the following:

• Pick up Bb6 after you ring Ab6 out, so the Ab6 space is open.
• Angle the handles of the primary bells close to the table, so the castings are more vertical (mouth up) than horizontal.
• Reverse Ab6 and Bb6 in the preset, so they’re in each other’s spaces.
• Move one of the bells slightly out toward the third row in the preset, or space them further apart.
• Start the passage on the other hand, so F6 is in the right hand and G6 is in the left hand.
• Switch the secondary bells with the primary (constants): start with Ab6/F6 and G6\Bb6.
• Transpose the piece, or that section, into a key that results in secondary bells falling into different rows. For example, if A6 were natural and Bb6 remained flat, there’d be no collision.

Choose the method that works best in the context of the rest of the piece, and of your skills. For example, the surrounding measures may look like this:

t4ih example 5

Start C7\Ab6

Here, measure 2 is similar to the pattern we’ve been working with. In this context, it makes more sense to choose as constants Ab6 in the right hand and Bb6 in the left, which is notated in measure 1.

In measure 1, beat 4, pick up G6 in the left hand secondary position, hold it there through measure 2, then ring and table it in measure 3.

In measure 2, beat 1, pick up F6 in the right hand secondary position, hold it there through the measure, and ring and table it in measure 3.

In measure 3, the arrows on Ab6 Bb6 indicate the end of their use as constants. Standard notation doesn’t usually include arrows for tabling a secondary bell, but you can use extra arrows as a reminder if you want.

To find the most likely constants, look for bells that ring more than once within a few measures. The more they ring, the better candidates they are to hold as constants. In a stepwise progression, identify the third and fourth notes (generally from the bottom). These often make good constants. Also look for arpeggios, especially in the upper treble where the spacing makes bells easier to reach. The bell in the middle (or one at either end) might make a good constant, depending on where the music is coming from, and where it’s going. Experiment with different possibilities until you find the bells that work best. Try to choose something intuitive, so it will be easier to remember under performance stress.

T4ih is much easier if an odd number of unique bells separates the reoccurrence of the constants. If an even number of unique bells intervenes, you may have to modify your approach, or choose different constants.

Another good way to incorporate T4ih into your choreography is to notice when you pick up and put down the same bells repeatedly, especially in the treble. Play around with hanging onto a bell for a while, and see what happens. Some good pieces for practicing T4ih are Gesu bambino, Angels we have heard on high, and Bist du bei mir.

There are many other options, such as combining displacement with T4ih. For example, you can set down a four-in-hand pair either in the home position of one of the bells, or somewhere else entirely. This is notated by drawing a box around the two notes with an arrow pointing down from it. (You can read more about T4ih notation in a notation guide.) You might set the pair in the home position of the secondary bell, and later pick up the primary bell by itself, or as a secondary in a new pair. Watch videos of me or other soloists and observe how we apply this technique.

The advantage of T4ih is that it permits the most legato line at the fastest tempo of all the table techniques. It’s well worth learning and doing, if only in a small way, for that reason. The disadvantage is that it’s easy to get confused about where to find the next bell, especially if you combine T4ih with displacement. T4ih is, by definition, customized to the piece. That makes it harder to remember in the context of a full concert program than a strictly keyboard approach. Once you lose track of a bell, whether in your hand or on the table, it can be hard to recover in the time available. Even just feeling that you’ve misplaced a bell can cause you to make mistakes, not only because of the lost bell, but from worrying about how you’re going to put things right. Sometimes I forget to table a constant, which can cause a problem if I’m still holding it while I want to pick up a new primary bell, or if I set it down at random and lose track of it.

Some people say T4ih makes the audience nervous. Of course, any technique will make the audience nervous if the soloist seems on the verge of disaster. These disadvantages can be partially offset by choreographing in a way that seems intuitive to you, choosing pairs that you naturally reach for, and by limiting T4ih to what you can easily remember. T4ih also doesn’t work well with the bell handles interlocked, though it is possible.

Next time, I’ll write about other four-in-hand techniques.

Copyright © 2011 Nancy Kirkner,