Part 1: Keeping Your Program Strong Throught Differentiated Instruction

by Karla Hulne

Change is inevitable. As a public school music educator, each year has me saying farewell to students I have invested many years of instruction into, and greeting a new group of eager, excited, and somewhat terrified faces.

In handbell education, these changes can be particularly difficult. After all, there isn’t any hiding for new members, no one playing the same notes as you, no one to imitate or emulate. New members often face the challenge of seeing music that is significantly more difficult than they have ever performed before when they move into a new ensemble. At the same time, more experienced and advanced ringers desire a challenge and a push to hone their skills. How do you balance differing experience levels?

I know I am not alone in this dilemma. Wherever you direct and instruct handbells, and no matter what age you work with, maintaining the integrity of the group with members who have varying experience levels is one of the biggest challenges you may face. The way I manage this struggle is by using differentiated instruction. This is a term that is used a lot in the world of education and is a way of life in my classroom. It describes a method of knowing and understanding the diverse learning needs of the individuals that you instruct so that you are better able to help all performers to grow.

In handbell education, this can take several forms, both for individuals and for the whole ensemble. Here are some differentiated instructional strategies to try in your rehearsal or for your next performance.

Set them up for success

From your first day of rehearsal, how you arrange your group can also have a big impact on the development of the members. When considering book partners, I often opt to pair a newer member with a more experienced member. Having a poised and self-assured partner who demonstrates strong technique can lead to a more confident new member; it also gives the veteran ringer a sense of leadership within the ensemble.

When considering the full ensemble configuration, I have done away with a horseshoe setup; we do primarily a straight line or a slight crescent line. In the full ensemble, I have found that when all ringers have a clear, straight line of sight to the director, I am better able to communicate with the performers, give definite cues, and lead dynamic changes. I am also able to move down the line, closer to struggling or lost ringers. Physical proximity can be a powerful tool. Knowing how much conductor assistance each performer needs is a critical part of differentiation.

Ditch the fixed bell assignments

Taking the setup idea one step farther, I encourage you to experiment with bell assignments. In fact, you will almost never see my students on the same bells on consecutive pieces. By not allowing my students to become fixed to a certain configuration of notes, I continually force them out of their comfort zone.

By using an ever-changing bell assignment, I am able to expose my students to multiple musical ideas to aid in their development. Students learn to understand how the composer has worked the voicing of the melody, counter melody and harmony, and understand what it feels like to perform each of those critical musical ideas on varying bell sizes. Each student learns that C4 does not feel or react the same as C7, whether it’s ringing, damping, malleting, or performing any other handbell skill. Every note requires a different technique to achieve quality sound and accurate rhythms, balance, dynamic contrast, and phrasing. In my classroom, literacy and proficiency means being able to read and perform both treble clef and bass clef.

A moveable bell assignment also gives me, as their director, a chance to move and challenge students as I see their growth and progress. And while it does take a little bit of extra time to change assignments mid-concert, careful practice of these transitions will help the process go smoothly. We’ve done it on live TV in a matter of seconds. Let the music guide your decisions about what bell assignment will challenge your ringers at their current ability level.

Choose your music wisely

Choosing quality and appropriate music is perhaps the most important thing you can do to differentiate instruction for your ensemble. It is, after all, the curriculum that you are basing your rehearsals around. It also requires that you know your group’s abilities extensively.

There are a number of high-quality selections available that provide a challenging melody line for more experienced ringers, while offering a thicker chordal texture in the harmonies that will help newer players develop confidence. Consider split-level pieces that offer a similar challenge, a simplified part for beginners and a more advanced part for continuing performers.

Additionally, consider that the music you desire to do might not be what is best for your current ensemble. Unfortunately, the two do not always line up. While we all have lofty dreams of the incredible handbell literature that’s available, formative assessment of your group’s performance level must be ongoing. Meeting them at their current level and having early success will be more likely to inspire growth than over-programming from the outset.

Provide enrichment opportunities

Knowledge is power! No matter where their ability level is currently, providing supplemental material for motivated ringers will help enhance their learning experience.

I highly recommend some form of music theory instruction for handbell members. I love the Excellence in Theory series by Ryan Nowlin and Bruce Pearson. It is suitable for many ages and will help extend the understanding of many musical ideas, including reading in both clefs and subdivision. It even has sections for ear training.

Providing opportunity for solo or small ensemble ringing is an important enrichment aspect of my handbell instruction. In a future article, I will discuss small ensemble music selection, and how this side of differentiation has helped strengthen my handbell musicians.


Karla Hulne is the director of instrumental music for the Blair-Taylor School District.  She received her Bachelor of Music Education degree from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.  In her time at Blair-Taylor, she has founded and directs three co-curricular handbell ensembles, instructing students in grades 1-12.  Her groups consistently bring home gold from both district and state music competitions.  She is a passionate music educator, and is a 2014 Ashley for the Arts Humanitarian Award Recipient and a 2015 Herb Kohl Fellow.