As with most musicians, handbell players enjoy many quirks; tiny nuances in behavior and speech that the layman might raise an eyebrow at. Today, we’ll attempt to decode some of the odder things that make a handbell player tick.
We Count Strangely
We are both terrible and wonderful at counting. As our spouses, children, and close friends can attest, we are constantly counting, especially to music. Mostly we only make it as high as four but occasionally we really stretch our counting muscles and take it up to eight. However the quirk lay not so much in the counting. It is rather reasonable for musicians to count out musical rhythm. It’s more the way we end up counting. One-ee and-uh two-ee and-uh three-ee and-uh four-ee. This is born out of keeping time in quick songs. Since handbells are a percussion instrument, sticking to the rhythm is everything. Most of us only play four to eight bells at a time and that version of counting helps us know when to ring a bell, pound a mallet or make a noise with an instrument. In very uptempo songs, one handbell player may only ring on the second “ee” and the third “uh”. Listening to the whole piece those pauses are filled in by the rich sounds of the other bells and percussion instruments. But for the individual player, we stand there. A lot. Counting strangely in our heads. Waiting for our specific “ee”s and “uh”s to come along so we can do our part.
We Insist on Calling Them Handbells
By definition a handbell is a bell designed to be rung by hand whereas a bell is the flared end of a woodwind or brass instrument. None of us are holding the bottom bits of clarinets or trumpets and we will correct any that say we are. (Though those of us who play the higher, smaller bells will willing admit those lower, larger bells look an awful lot like disassembled tubas.)
We Have a Love-Hate Relationship with Certain Songs
Some of the most beautiful music is created for bells, or at least with bells in mind. While we here at OCHE pride ourselves in playing music beyond the spiritual classics, we do appreciate how wonderful those old standards are; especially around Christmas & Easter. But just because we love the songs, doesn’t mean we don’t cringe as they approach in the program. Ask any ensemble member which their least favorite song to play is and we’ll have a litany of things to say on one piece or another. And almost every time it will begin with “Oh the piece is beautiful but…” And we mean it. We truly love listening to a song like Carol of the Bells. We also live in fear of having to play it for fear of messing up that one section. That bit halfway through at the key change...it’s like the composer expects us to have six hands to get all those bells rung in the correct order at the correct time. One-ee and-uh two-ee and-uh…
Clang Is a Foul Word
Some people have a strong aversion to the word “moist”. Others are unnerved by words like “nugget” or “ooze”. You can illicit a visceral reaction from bell ringers by saying “Clang”. It instantly reminds us of accidentally banging two handbells together and that is a gut-wrenching moment for us. Not only can that damage the bells but it makes the most awful sound. Plus it means we’re gonna have to spend extra time polishing the two that collided to make sure we didn’t hurt them. And polishing is not fun. Not fun at all.
We Swear That Our Handbells Have Personalities...And Not All of Them Are Pleasant
While several of our members will hop around the tables, playing different ranges of bells on different songs, many of us have our four to eight handbells that we handle at each practice and performance. Over time we become familiar with the way the bells behave. Some of them are sweet and reliable. It doesn’t matter how quickly we have to make them ring, they will peel loud and strong and clear without fail. Others of our bells are less than cooperative. The handle may be just a bit jiggly or the clapper on the finicky side and we know we have to baby the things lest we thrust our arm out to ring with gusto only to have a flat, lackluster thud of a sound issue forth. While we’ll never admit to it in person, we’ve all had our little chats with the more stubborn of our bells. There may have been occasional threats of melting a few of them down if they didn’t straighten up. Not saying we would melt them down, just that we really, really thought about it from time to time.
And there you have it. Just a few of the stranger of our handbell ringers’ quirks. We hope this gave you new insight into why we do what we do.
If you found yourself nodding in agreement and relating to every paragraph, consider joining our ensemble. We can never have too many handbell ringers. Click on the Contact Us link for more information about joining Oklahoma City Handbell Ensemble for our upcoming Winter Season.