Dust off Those Bells!

Resources for Small Handbell Ensembles

The handbell choir may be the ultimate expression of music-making as a community of believers. The ensemble cannot function without each individual; at the same time, the contribution of each individual is meaningless apart from the whole. This reality, however, makes supporting a handbell choir difficult for churches that simply cannot enlist enough qualified ringers to rehearse on a regular basis.

A handbell ensemble generally requires at least eight ringers to perform the minimum two-octave range required by traditional repertoire. Although it is sometimes possible to perform this music with fewer people, the average ringer might have difficulty handling multiple bells in one hand and switching quickly from one bell to another. Furthermore, if the ensemble is operating with the minimum number, even one absence at a rehearsal or service can make it impossible for the ensemble to perform.

But wait, there’s hope! So dust off those handbells. Careful recruiting and music selection enables a small handbell choir to perform anthems and hymn accompaniments with just a few ringers and minimal rehearsal time. This article will provide suggestions and resources for making handbells a part of your music ministry—either for the first time or once again.

The Ensemble

The ensemble I’m describing here is made up of only six to eight people. Though one person will need to serve as leader and organizer, the group does not have to be conducted, especially if the leader is needed to play. The group is flexible in that the number of ringers depends on the selection at hand. In fact, in a group with eight ringers, it is likely that someone will always sit out, as the music recommended here rarely requires more than 12 bells at one time. This arrangement provides for as many as two absences, since substitutes are always available.

Of course it is important that the leader explains the reasons for not always using the entire ensemble, and that he or she rotates players fairly. Those not playing a particular piece will also appreciate rehearsals organized to allow them to come late or leave early.

Weekly rehearsals are ideal. They afford the ensemble enough time to prepare music and hymn accompaniments. But it’s possible to have a successful group that meets less frequently if all the players read music well and if appropriate repertoire is selected. The group I organized at Western Springs (Ill.) Christian Reformed Church, for example, typically holds two to four rehearsals prior to playing in a service. Music usually includes an anthem as well as an introit or benediction response and at least one hymn accompaniment.

Although fewer than two octaves may be used at one time, an ensemble with access to at least a three-octave set of instruments will have the ability to play most of the music listed here.

Churches without a set of instruments may want to consider purchasing a set of handchimes before investing in a set of bells. Handchimes are aluminum tubular bells with rounded tone chambers and an adjustable clapper mechanism for variable expression and articulation. They are much less expensive than handbells and can be safely handled by young and inexperienced players. Although the sound of handchimes is generally softer than handbells and may not be heard with congregational singing, they can be used effectively to provide preludes, offertories, and other music.

Recruiting Players

The key to a successful handbell ensemble is recruiting players who read music well, who work well as a team, and who learn quickly. Instead of making a general announcement asking for volunteers, consider making a list of all those in the congregation that meet the above criteria and contacting each individual personally. It is more important that potential members be able to count rhythms and demonstrate good musicianship than that they have previous handbell experience. Although advanced techniques may take years to master, most people can develop the basic skills needed for successful performance of easier music in a short amount of time.

Don’t be afraid to invite middle school and high school students to join the ensemble, as many have the necessary skills and may have rung bells or handchimes as part of their school music program.

If, in the recruiting process, you feel that some people are apprehensive about ringing, offer to let them come once and try it out. Most people with previous musical experience will quickly learn that handbell ringing is not as difficult as it looks and, with a little positive encouragement, will gladly become permanent members of the ensemble.


Hal Hopson’s book Creative Use of Handbells in Worship is an invaluable resource for hymn ostinati, accompaniments, introits, and other responses—many of which require a minimum number of bells. Directors can also use the hymnal as a basis for creating their own arrangements, ostinati, and descants.

Remember that handbells sound an octave higher than written and must be heard over the singing. It is, therefore, best to adjust clappers to their hardest setting to insure crisp articulation, prominence of high overtones, and maximum volume when needed.

Here are a few ways you can use handbells to enhance congregational singing:

  • Play the melody either alone or in octaves. The added octave will help bring out the melody over the congregation and provide an opportunity for players to practice basic “shelley ringing”—playing two bells simultaneously in one hand. If this technique is too awkward for beginning ringers, the upper and lower octaves can be divided if there are enough players to cover all the pitches.
  • Create a descant using an interesting alto or tenor line played an octave higher than written (which will sound two octaves higher). These too can be played in octaves if enough bells are available.
  • Create a harmonization from the melody, alto, and tenor lines. I usually begin with the melody and alto part, then add notes on the bottom and alter the alto line to fill in the chords and insure good voice leading. Make sure the root and third are always present in the chord and avoid writing parallel fifths and octaves. It is OK to omit the fifth at times in order to provide better voice leading or include a seventh, ninth, etc. A successful arrangement will be effective both alone and with keyboard accompaniment.
  • Write a short melodic ostinato that can be played throughout the verse or just during a refrain using key melodic motives, arpeggiated patterns from the tonic chord, or sustained chords based on the progression of the hymn. Drones using opened fifths in various octaves are particularly effective with pentatonic and chant-like melodies. It is likely that ostinati will sometimes clash with the chord, though this should be avoided for a prolonged period of time. Keep it simple. An ostinato should enhance rather than overwhelm the melody. Hopson’s book provides excellent examples of these techniques.
  • Be careful not to overuse the bells. There is no need to play on every stanza. A three-stanza hymn using varied accompaniments on one or two stanzas will be very effective.

Several anthem collections are available for smaller ensembles. Patricia Sanders Coates, for example, has composed a number of books playable with just twelve bells. Be careful not to select music that is too difficult, especially if rehearsal time is limited. A clean, musical performance of an easier work adds much more to the service than an under-prepared piece with lots of notes and flashy techniques. Also, make sure that the melody is always the most prominent line by instructing those on non-melodic parts to play underneath the tune.

A small handbell choir can add an exciting dimension to the music ministry of any congregation, even if the group has just a few players. This ensemble will not only enhance the congregation’s worship but also provide an opportunity for people who may not otherwise use their musical gifts for God’s glory.


Arrangements for Small Ensembles

Title; Composer/Arranger; Publisher; Price (USD)

Dawn of a New Day; John C. Dare; Dare Team Press; $3.50

Five to Go; John C. Dare; Dare Team Press; $4.25

Four Pieces for Five Ringers; John C. Dare; Dare Team Press; $4.25

Four Pieces for Six Ringers; John C. Dare; Dare Team Press; $4.25

Four Songs for Four Ringers; John C. Dare; Dare Team Press; $4.25

More Music for Six; John C. Dare; Dare Team Press; $4.25

The Joyful Four; John C. Dare; Dare Team Press; $4.25

Three Selections for Six Ringers; John C. Dare; Dare Team Press; $4.25


These collections include original compositions and hymnarrangements for four to six ringers playing two bells each. Gradelevels vary from AGEHR level 1-3. These pieces as well as othercompositions can be viewed and heard at www.dareteampress.com.(AGEHR=American Guild of English Handbell Ringers)

Less than a Full Choir—Lent and Easter I; Bill Ingram; Handbell Services Inc.; $3.95

Less than a Full Choir—Spirituals I; Linda Lamb; Handbell Services Inc.; $3.95

Ring with 6 for Lent and Easter; Martha Lynn Thompson; Handbell Services Inc.; $7.95


Generally AGEHR level 2 hymn arrangements are written for up to sixringers. Titles are included in each collection and additionalinformation can be obtained from the publisher atwww.store.handbellservices.com.

Twelve Bells + 1 for Spirituals; Coata, Patricia Sanders; Hope Publishing; $7.95

Twelve Bells for Praise and Worship; Coata, Patricia Sanders; Hope Publishing; $7.95

Twelve Bells for Praise and Worship II; Coata, Patricia Sanders; Hope Publishing; $8.95

Twelve Bells for Worship; Coata, Patricia Sanders; Hope Publishing; $8.95

Twelve Bells for Worship II; Coata, Patricia Sanders; Hope Publishing; $8.95

Twelve Bells of Christmas; Coata, Patricia Sanders; Hope Publishing; $7.95

Twelve Bells of Christmas II; Coata, Patricia Sanders; Hope Publishing; $7.95

Twelve Bells of Christmas III; Coata, Patricia Sanders; Hope Publishing; $6.95


Each of these collections contains six to nine arrangements ofstandard hymns and/or praise songs using twelve bells (C5-G6) withoutaccidentals, thus allowing ensembles to perform without tables. Thoughplayable with as few as three people, these pieces are especiallyeffective for a small ensemble of six ringers. All of the Twelve Bellsbooks are relatively easy (AGEHR level 2) but very creative andsatisfying even for mature musicians, making them excellent repertoirefor the small ensemble.

Hymn and Liturgical Accompaniments

Title; Composer/Arranger; Publisher; Price

The Creative Use of Handbells in Worship, Vols. I and II; Hal H. Hopson; Hope Publishing; $29.95


These volumes offer a variety of creative ideas for the use ofhandbells in hymn singing. Suggestions range from the use of a singlebell to a full handbell choir. All of the handbell parts may bereproduced for your ensemble. An exceptional resource for incorporatingsmall bell groups into congregational worship.

More Creative Ways to Use the Choir, Organ, Handbells, and Other Instruments in Worship; Hal H. Hopson; Hope Publishing; $29.95


This final volume adds over 100 more timesaving ideas andreproducible examples to the contents of the five previously publishedvolumes. All musical examples can be copied for your choir. Ideas forenhancing your hymn singing in a variety of ways using the choir,organ, handbells, and other instruments are included. A hymn tune indexfor all the books in the series is also provided.

Handbells in the Catholic Liturgy; Hal H. Hopson; Hope Publishing; $29.95


Written and designed as an addendum to The Creative Use of Handbellsin Worship, this book is presented to fulfill the specific needs ofusing handbells in the Catholic liturgy. From intoning psalmody andacclamations to contemporary songs in styles including Gospel andSpanish, examples are provided for immediate use and for futuremodeling.

Tintinnabulum: The Liturgical Use of Handbells; Richard Proulx; GIA Publications; $13.00


This book contains a wealth of supplementary information regardinghandbell history, manufacturing, and technique, as well as numerousliturgical pieces, including plainsong hymns and canticles, psalmsettings, and psalm tones for use with voices. Music for bells includespeals and Christmas carols. Many pieces in this book require as few asthree to twelve bells.

Technique and Instruction

Title; Composer/Arranger; Publisher; Price

Handbell Helper: A Guide For Beginning Directors and Choirs; Martha Lynn Thompson; Theodore Presser; $10.00


This text covers topics such as equipment, selecting music,assigning bells, handbell techniques and notation, marking music,rehearsal techniques, and related topics.

Handbell Ringing, Learning, Teaching, Performing; Robert Ivey; Hope Publishing; $26.95


This 100+ page text shares the expertise of a man who has taughthandbell ringers and directors for over 20 years. Topics include thebasics of ringing and organizing a handbell program.

Bell Basics (Video); David L. Weck & Susan Berry; Hope Publishing; $49.95


This is a comprehensive program of instruction for the beginninghandbell director and ringer. Featured are equipment needs, correctringing techniques, bell assignments, and more.

Phillip M. Hash (pmh3@calvin.edu) teaches music education at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Reformed Worship 86 © December 2007, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.