On One Instrument

A piano is one instrument with 88 keys (52 white, 36 black). Typically, one PianoKeysperson reads many notes on piano music to create rhythmic patterns aimed to please the audience. I’m not a piano player, but I admire the pianist’s skills not only with their hands, but their ability to read and play so many notes on a page. Yet, a piano is one instrument played by one person.

MusicalNotesFrequencyBands and orchestras are large groups of different instruments working together as a unit to create a complex musical sound. However, just like the piano, each member is responsible for one instrument – and their music typically displays the notes for one instrument. Therefore, it is the conductor’s responsibility to bring the instrumentation of the ensemble together to please the audience.

Although they also produce music for an audience, handbells are different because they are one instrument that multiple people play together. I imagine you never thought of a handbell choir being one instrument, but it is – Therefore, this post aims to explain this single instrument with its numerous freestanding pieces.

For starters, the number of bells in a choir varies depending on the number of Handbellsmembers and their skills. One handbell is the equivalent to one key on the piano. In our choir, that’s about 60 bells for 13-14 people – but every song doesn’t require every bell. (Note: If we had the players and money, we could add about 36 more bells.) Occasionally, music also requires some players to use handchimes, which I will work in later.

For those thinking that piano music looks busy, handbell music is more so because composers place all the notes for the entire choir together. Yep – that means the player must have the ability to locate their notes among the jungle. (I’m responsible for 2-4 notes/bells).

Besides the all the notes and standard information as key, tempo, and dynamics, handbell music has additional marking for the techniques that create a variety of sounds. Terms include marts, ring touch, let vibrate, mallets, plucks, echoes, damp, mart lifts, swings, gyros, shakes, mallet rolls, and more. (Yep, symbols for each technique.) Players can also adjust the hardness of the clamper inside the bell. (The soft setting sound is mellow, while the hard setting sound is bright; and, there is an in-between setting.

See this short (less than 2 minutes) video demonstrating some techniques.


.

Just like other musical ensembles, the conductor has the responsibility of bringing it all together – but with handbells, the conductor orchestrates multiple people playing one instrument – quite the challenge! Now watch this video to see everything come together in a short, spurt of madness from Ring of Fire! (Watch for the different techniques.)


.

Earlier, I mentioned handchimes. Like handbells, its one handchime per note – but they produce a different sound. Besides handchimes, handbell choirs may incorporate other instruments. We have played with piano, organ, trumpet, violin, flute, drums, contrabass bars, other percussion, and singers.

In closing, I hope this has helped you understand what is involved, so now enjoy the Raleigh Ringers with handbells, handchimes, cello, flute, and mallet chimes – and notice all the bells behind them that are not used in this piece. Ah yes, who would have imagined that the complexity of one instrument.

.

Note: Special thanks to Madam Weebles for the thought triggering this post.