beginning handbells

How to Start a Handbell Choir (with Zero Experience)

How to Start a Handbell Choir (with Zero Experience)

So, you want to start a handbell choir. The only problem is, you don't know the first thing about ringing and your ringers are mostly newbies without a whole lot of previous musical experience.

What's a want-to-be handbell choir director to do?

The good news is you don't need to have a lot of experience or professional training to lead and direct a handbell choir (though, that never hurts). With a desire to learn, a solid sense of rhythm and steady beat, and a little practical know-how, you'll be on your way to building and leading a handbell choir in no time.

10 Creative Ways to Use Handbells in Worship

10 Creative Ways to Use Handbells in Worship

One of my favorite parts of worship planning is finding creative ways to incorporate music into the services. From introits to benediction responses, prayer responses, transitions, and even underscoring.

Handbells are a great way to do this!

Over the past few years, SD and I have come up with several creative, meaningful ways to include handbells in worship, beyond the traditional prelude or anthem slot. We recently inherited a bell choir at church, so I’m revisiting some creative, out-of-the-box from our past experiences and coming up with a few new ideas for our group this spring.

I mean, who said you have to have tables and foam and covers and special folders and notebook stands to play? We're breaking with tradition and using handbells in a whole new way.

Here are a few of our favorite ideas:

Adventures in Bell Ringing: Free Handbell Acclamation!

Hooray!  I am so excited to share this with y'all today!

As you know by now, SD and I have been directing a beginning handbell choir at church these past two months. 

We've been working on a few reading pieces but we've also enjoyed doing some improvising (read more here) and teaching a few things by rote.

SD wrote this acclamation for our bell choir to play in worship last week. 

I thought it was too good not to share and he was gracious enough to let me give it to you as a free printable! 

Glorioso - free handbell acclamation by Steve Danyew

Free Handbell Acclamation

Download "Glorioso" for Handbell Choir (16 bells) and print as many copies as you need for your choir.

The piece is designed for a smaller group (16 bells) and is simple enough to teach without notation.  Each player has a rhythm pattern that is repeated throughout.  The piece is gradually built from the bottom, with two parts entering at a time.

Since we had been practicing rhythmic reading in our rehearsals, I wrote out index cards for each player with their rhythmic pattern and bell position to help them keep track of their own part.

This piece works really well as an introit - something short but joyful to begin worship.  It was well-suited for the third Sunday in Advent but it really could be used any time of the year!

Get Your Free Copy

Download "Glorioso" for Handbell Choir (16 bells) and
print as many copies as you need for your choir.

See more music for small handbell choirs here. Enjoy, and happy ringing!

P.S. I'd love to hear from you if you end up using this with your bell choir.  Please leave a comment below or email me and let me know how it goes!

Starting a Bell Choir
Improvisation Activities

Adventures in Bell Ringing: Improvisation Activities


Please note: some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means if you decide to purchase through any of them, I will earn a small commission. This helps support the blog and allows me to continue creating free content. Thank you for your support!

We've had three rehearsals with our little bell choir now and they're doing so well! As you may recall from my last post, SD and I tried to plan a variety of music for the first few weeks - pieces that called for a flexible number of bells and covered a range of playing and reading levels.

The first night, we had several new ringers and a few that were new to reading music entirely.  (Side note: I was thrilled by this - it's so exciting to me to have new people come out to learn and make music together!).  With this scenario in the back of our minds, we also planned a few improvisation activities that wouldn't rely on music notation.  This way, we could start making music right from the beginning with whoever came that first night. 

Getting Started

We passed out pencils and pairs of white gloves to everyone as they arrived and made temporary bell assignments based on the pentatonic scale.  We used a C-based pentatonic scale (C-D-E-G-A) but you can easily transpose it to another key of your choice.  Each person had 2 bells.

Random Ring

We introduced and demonstrated the basic techniques of ringing and damping and then let everyone try it for a minute or so, freely and in their own tempo.  (This was the perfect setup for our improvisation activity because, essentially, they were already creating a "random ring" effect without even realizing it!). 

Once everyone had a good feel for ringing, we started the activity formally, this time with the lowest C (C3 or C4) chiming three times to start us off.  Everyone was free to ring as frequently or infrequently as they desired and since we were only using the notes of the pentatonic scale, we told them not to worry about damping for the time being.

The goal was to create a sort of "wind chime" effect that would become the backdrop for the familiar chant melody, "Of the Father's Love Begotten."  The first two weeks we did this, I played the melody on the piano with plenty of space in between phrases.  The third week, SD played the melody on the saxophone (the way we hope to play it in worship later this month).


The great thing about this activity is that there are no wrong notes.  The pentatonic arrangement ensures that even if everyone played their bells at the same time, the resulting sonority would be a pleasant one.

There is no real sense of rhythm involved, as it is determined at the individual level, so those with lower levels of musical intuition won't feel self conscious about not ringing in time with everyone else.  Also, there is no reading involved!  Those who are new readers don't have to worry about following the "third line and fourth space" while keeping track of the beat - they can just play, uninhibited.

Rhythm Pattern Card Set by Ashley Danyew.png

Help those you teach learn the language of music.

This printable collection of six rhythm pattern card sets features a total of 192 different patterns made up of quarter notes, half notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and quarter rests in duple and triple meters (32 cards/set).

Rhythmic Canon

Another activity we introduced the first week was a rhythmic canon.  The inspiration for this came from Michael Keller's Developing Coordination Skills.  Instead of reading through the examples in the book (which involves an explanation about ignoring the lines and spaces that are notated and just ringing what you have in hand), we created three shorter examples and notated just the rhythm patterns on a large white board at the front of the room.

Each pattern was two measures long (4/4 time) with a repeat sign marked at the end.  The patterns were numbered, "1, 2, and 3."  We were still in the pentatonic arrangement but we let everyone choose whether they wanted to read the rhythm with one or two bells.  Some opted to alternate R and L, others changed bells every measure, and others played everything with only one bell.  The goal here was to introduce a little bit of notation and get everyone used to reading together (in rhythm) as a group.

First, we read each pattern together (with repeats).  Then, we asked each person to choose one of the three patterns to play and surprise us (the goal was to hear all three patterns at the same time).  Finally, we asked them to again choose a pattern from the list but this time, cycle through all three patterns (with repeats) like a canon (the goal was to have each player read all three rhythm patterns independently).

There are obviously a number of ways to do a rhythmic canon-type activity in rehearsal - I'll leave the creative variations up to you!  Happy improvising!

Starting a Bell Choir

Image credit: This work, "Improvisation Activities for Handbells," is a derivative of "handbells" by Joe Lewis, used under CC BY-SA 2.0. "Improvisation Activities for Handbells" is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 by Ashley Danyew.

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.

Please note: some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means if you decide to purchase through any of them, I will earn a small commission. This helps support the blog and allows me to continue creating free content. Thank you for your support!


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.


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?