Making a Joyful Noise with Handbells

The sound of the handbell is sweet and silvery. At close range it can be amazingly powerful and penetrating—a uniquely happy and ethereal sound that first surprises and then captivates the listener.

Handbells—tuned bells that are rung by holding the bell upright—originated in England hundreds of years ago. However, only during the past few decades have churches on this continent started using handbells in worship. And many—perhaps most —Reformed and Presbyterian congregations have never heard handbells.

These congregations are missing something special. When properly used, handbells offer a distinctively beautiful touch to the worship service. And they are not difficult to play. Though sophisticated and even virtuoso ringing exists, for the most part ringing is quite uncomplicated once the ringer gets the feel of the bells. The main concern is that the ringer strike the bells at the right time—a feat that requires only accurate counting and a degree of confidence.

Purchasing Handbells

Handbells are available in sets of various standard sizes. The smallest set has a compass of twenty-five notes (ranging from g to g2) and can be purchased for about $2500. Though this set has obvious limitations, a group of eight to a dozen ringers can make a good deal of music with it. In fact, an extensive repertory of music is available for two octaves of handbells. Larger sets of handbells run three, four, and five octaves, the most common being three (with a compass of c to c3). It should be noted that handbells sound one octave higher than the notes scored for them: when a ringer rings middle C, the note sounded is one octave above middle C.

Though handbells need regular polishing (they oxidize like silver), with proper care they are virtually maintenance-free. Present-day bells are constructed so that minor repairs and adjustments can be made easily by the choir director, and manufacturers are generally very willing to provide instructions, advice, and parts.

Organizing a Handbell Choir

Who can direct handbell choirs? Any church musician with a basic musical education. The American Guild of English Handbell Ringers publishes information that will help prospective directors. During the summer the Guild also provides simple and painless training sessions at its national and regional festivals.

Who can ring handbells? Anyone who can count to four: children, teenagers, and adults. Handbells provide an excellent way of involving members who would otherwise not participate in the worship service. (See "All They Can Do.") They also provide an opportunity for fellowship with other church members and a sense of musical accomplishment for persons who play no other instrument and who do not sing in a choir.

When recruiting members for a handbell choir, the director should emphasize that once a ringer has signed up, handbell rehearsals come before other activities. The most troublesome difficulty in a handbell choir—particularly in a group of beginners who are unable to fill in for one another—is the absence of ringers from rehearsal (or, worse, from performance).

Handbells in Worship

While handbells will enhance worship if used now and then, the handbell choir should not be a weekly feature in the order of worship. The handbell sound, although distinctive and ethereal, does not wear as well as many other musical sounds. As with rich food, a little goes a long way. Therefore, if handbells are used in moderation, they will continue to entice and enchant the listening ear.

From time to time the director may want to add variety by using other instruments with the handbells. For example, a fair amount of music has been written for handbells and organ, flute, or trumpet. Many anthems also employ bells.

No matter how handbells are used—by themselves or with other instruments—they will provide a joyful and expressive means of assisting worshipers in bringing praise to Almighty God.

Handbell Music by Raymond H. Haan

(for two octaves of bells, unless otherwise noted)

All Glory, Laud and Honor (3 octaves), in Ringing for Worship—Broadman Press, 1976.
At the Manger (A Suite of Three Christmas Carols)—Broadman Press, 1980
Carillon Festiva (4-5 octaves)—Belwin Mills, 1980
In His Footsteps (A Suite of Six Pieces)—Broadman Press, 1983
My Father's World (A Suite of Five Pieces)—Broadman Press, 1980
Theme and Variations on "How Firm a Foundation" (in Glorious Is Thy Name)—Broadman Press, 1979
Reflection for Organ, Handbells, and Flute—Sacred Music Press, 1983
Three Pieces (in A Bell Concert): Invention Joyeux; Perpetual Motion;
Variations on a Shaker Tune—Harold Flammer, 1979
Variations on Two French Melodies for Handbells and Flute—Broadman Press, 1983
Pictures of Jesus (a suite of five pieces)—Broadman Press, 1981
Variations on the Tune "Austin" (in Fanfare)—Broadman Press, 1981
Variations on Three French Carols (opt. flute)—National Music Publishers, 1982
The Fountain (suite of three pieces)—Beckenhorst Press, 1984
Ring, Christmas Bells (three carols)—Broadman Press, 1984
Lyric Suite (suite of four pieces)—Sacred Music Press, 1985
Roulade (for handbells and organ)—Agape, 1985
Come, Holy Spirit ("Veni Creator Spiritus")—Broadman Press, 1985
Rocking Carol for Handbells and Organ—Broadman Press, 1986

Additional Resources

The American Guild of English Handbell Ringers, Inc., is a very active organization, with materials and conferences available to member. For details, write: A. G. E. H. R., Inc., 601 West Riverview Ave., Dayton, OH 45406.

The January 1987 issue of the Journal of Church Music features rehearsal strategies, techniques, and resources for handbell choirs. Single copies are $3.00. Write: Journal of Church Music, Fortress Press, 2900 Queen Lane, Philadelphia, PA 19129.

The two main producers of handbells in the United States are both in Pennsylvania. Either one would be glad to send a brochure:
Malmark, Inc., Bell Crest Park, Plumsteadville, PA 18949
Schulmerich Carillons, Inc., Carillon Hill, Sellersville, PA 18960.

Raymond H. Haan is a published composer of many works for organ, choir, and bell choir. He is music director for East Cutlerville (Mich.) Christian Reformed Church.