Adventures in Bell Ringing: How to Start a Bell Choir

We're starting a bell choir! This is a new experience for us but we are looking forward to the adventures that lie ahead!  I love getting to work with SD and we're excited to have our own little group to direct, something we've missed since moving back to Rochester.  Here is a behind-the-scenes look at our planning process:

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Filing cabinets full of (hundreds of) bell choir pieces

We've been in conversation with the Music Director about this for a few months now (since the previous bell choir director retired at the end of last year) and together, we decided it might be good to restructure things a bit.  Rather than asking people to commit to play in the group for the year, we created a short-term opportunity for November and December - six rehearsals in all.

Also, we moved the rehearsal time to Wednesdays right before adult choir to encourage people to come a little early and take part in both groups for a few weeks.  We wanted to give everyone the opportunity to participate, regardless of previous musical experience and/or reading skills.  This made our planning a little more difficult but we chose a variety of repertoire and made up a few different bell assignment options, to accommodate the people who came the first week.

We pulled a stack of pieces and resources to take home, things we thought might work for the first few weeks, and began planning.  Working on our rehearsal plan for the first week Since the group is open to everyone, we knew we needed to start with an introduction to basic ringing techniques.  Not knowing the reading level of the group, we planned a free improvisation activity (with everyone playing chord tones) to get the group playing and making music right from the beginning.

Next, we pulled a few rhythmic reading examples from Michael Keller's Developing Coordination Skills (though we notated a few rhythm patterns on the board rather than giving them the printed notation).

We found one of the Thompson/Callahan Begin to Ring books in the church music library and read the three settings of Holy, Holy, Holy (progressively more difficult). These arrangements only call for 15 bells (7 people) so we wrote out optional chime assignments (to double the melody at pitch) to include an extra 4 people, if we got a really big group the first night.  We did the same thing for a setting of For the Beauty of the Earth (17 bells) in Al Zabel's Seventeen Handbell Processions.

I love having handbell acclamations at the beginning of worship (inspired by Music and Worship Arts Week at Lake Junaluska - read more here and here) and we thought this would be a fairly accessible way for the group to contribute to worship, even with our limited timetable.  Peal No. 1 in Hal Hopson's The Creative Use of Handbells in Worship calls for 9 bells (one per person) and we thought we'd use four chimes to double an ostinato pattern, if needed (another 2-4 people).

Last on our agenda was a setting of Simple Gifts (12 bells) arranged by Patricia Sanders Cota in Twelve Bells for Worship.  Again, we found a repeated line that could be doubled by chimes, creating parts for three more players.

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A little something fun for the first night

We made copies of the music to encourage people to mark their music (or color-code their part, if desired!).  To save time, we put everything in order, based on our rehearsal plan.Of course, we had to have something fun for the first night - I thought up this idea while we were traveling last week and love how they turned out!

Have you ever directed or played in a bell choir?  What was your favorite part?

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