An effective, efficient and fun (but “colorless”) approach

by Dian Ruder

Much has been written about teaching beginners to read by non-traditional notation. I have tried and used several of these methods myself at times. Some are very simple, others very elaborate; huge charts with colors and beats diagrammed for every song. One of the most remarkable performances I’ve seen was a large group of handicapped youth at the 16th International Symposium in Korea. They performed a concert of beautiful, accurate music with the director’s own chart system, using helpers for some of the ringers. Their performance was wonderful, and the ovation was resounding

Everybody Rings: Everybody Reads

I work with a wide variety of students at my elementary school where I have three performing groups of 4th, 5th and 6th graders. My husband David and I also teach children aged 7 and up in in our handbell academy program at church. At school I need to get students up to performance level in a short period of time for monthly chapel performances and get them up to ringing Level 2 music by their third year. That is a challenge with 35 minutes per week for the beginners and 55 minutes per week for the others. Every class member rings, and there are always a few that, while not as challenged as the Korean group, have some learning disabilities or coordination issues. Students’ abilities, ages, prior music experience, the goals of the program, and the time available are critical factors in how effectively one can teach. Since my program is geared toward performance, I try to get them reading “real” music as quickly as possible. I would love to have time to start with non-ringing rhythm games, but I get faster results with exercises, drills, and games that directly relate to or involve ringing and reading on the staff.

Feel the Beat!

We start with feeling the beat, using handchimes. I find that teaching ringing technique first is most efficient, and I made up the “rocket” stroke just for chimes. The kids love it! I start with one chime in the non-dominant hand, on the theory that whatever that hand can do, the dominant hand can do better. Add the second chime when students are adept with one chime in either hand. Hold your chime upright, just above the table, like a rocket on the launching pad. Check that the clapper is back for ready-to-start position. Light the fire for ignition with a push forward, upright (“boom” noise optional), then send the chime out, up and around into “orbit.” A whole note orbits around the sun, a half note around the earth, and a quarter note around the moon. I make it up. If the chime leans sideways or is not upright, it will go off track, and might crash into Mars or something. Have fun with it! Amazingly, adult beginners are not always more coordinated than children at the two-handed alternating stroke and damp. Make it an early rehearsal warm-up for at least 6 weeks.

The combination of ringing circles and counting beats gets ringers understanding the musical time. We try to launch the chimes together for an ensemble experience and for learning the director’s downbeat. Next I show them the musical symbols for their 4-beat, 2-beat, and 1-beat “orbits.” Using personal discipline, I make it a priority for them, not me, to count the beats aloud. I encourage this by asking for a “cheerleader count,” a “football huddle count,” an “indoor voice count,” or a “whisper count.” Eventually I ask for a “head count” where ringers think the numbers but don’t say them. Internalizing the counting is critical to independent ringing.

Along the way, teach other parts of the music. Try introducing clef symbols when you first get the stroke down. Compare pitch and chime size by having all the trebles play when you point to their sign on a classroom board, and basses similarly for the bass clef. For measures and meter I keep it simple at first, sticking to 4/4 until students can count that well.

Onto the Staff….

Now that ringers can play whole, half, and quarter notes with some accuracy, they are ready to put the notes on a staff and figure out which belongs to whom. This is where it gets difficult. Some methods skip to immediate reading of colored notes or circled notes, bypassing the problem of “Which note is mine?” I personally believe this leads to color or circle dependency, delaying further music reading.

With all non-music readers I start with a one-line staff drawn on the board. (See example A.)

Example A

Example A

Differentiating a line note from a space note is the first accomplishment, and this concept can be reinforced by games, contests, worksheets, and drills. More fun! I work up to a 5-line staff as soon as possible. One game has the students divided into two teams, and each person wins a point for his team if he can tell me whether the note drawn on the board is a line or space note. (See also Example B, a paper exercise that each student does on his own.) Next comes identifying which line or space belongs to a chime. I briefly discuss octaves and their numbers and draw two 5-lined staves for a grand staff on my white board with a few chords on it covering all the notes being played. When I point to a note, the ringer gets to ring a solo note that lets him shine.

Example B

Example B

I recommend keeping students on the same two notes until the first steps are mastered. Soon they can find their notes on the staff and ring full chords that sound good! Now they can sing along to whole/half note chord songs. (See example C) A confession here: while I will not use color coding at all, I will let students use a “worksheet” of part of the song on first reading. (Keep the copied part to 10% or less of the whole if it is not a reproducible copyright.) My ringers share music in pairs, but each ringer gets his own worksheet. They circle both their notes in pencil to identify them, play through the worksheet a few times, then play from the original score without the worksheet. They feel challenged to get rid of the worksheet as soon as their neighbor does.

Example C

Example C

Pride in playing without the “helps” motivates them to read better! Later, when I tell ringers they don’t need a worksheet to start–that they can “sight-read” it–they are excited by their growth.

Make it Bigger

When students are just learning to read, a crucial and often overlooked factor is the size of the notes and staff. I use my own or reproducible chord songs, so I can enlarge them to the maximum possible that still fits the page. The bigger the better, even larger than the large print in most beginning books. They cannot play correctly what they cannot see easily. I can enlarge 10 to 15 percent on a copier depending on the size of the original.

Advancing beyond whole notes, Kirtsy Mitchell’s book “Beginning Busy Ringers” provides independent ringing at the simplest level with the song “Solo Time,” one of my favorites. For ringing quarter notes together, “Silence,” another in the same book works wonders and provides fun giggles when anyone plays on the silent beats. Once students have progressed from Level 0 music to Level 1, more note values can be combined, leading to more advanced reading and ringing.

While this “Straight to the Staff” method works well for young ringers, older beginners also benefit from starting to ring with “real” notes, not circles and colors, so long as the necessary steps of understanding are not skipped over. The ringers take more ownership in identifying their own notes and don’t have to deal with missing notes that were inadvertently “not circled.”  It takes a bit of time to learn direct note recognition but the long-term dividends–faster learning, confident independent ringers and more excellent ringing–are well worth the effort.


Dian Ruder directs three handbell teams at Canterbury Christian School in Los Altos, California, and directs two of five teams in the Valley Handbell Academy in Cupertino which she and her husband David founded. A solo ringer, bell tree ringer and rings in the church’s adult ensemble, Dian has taught a variety of classes at local, national and international levels. She and David have traveled to many countries giving the joy of handchimes to many children and adults. Dian has a BSN, BA and MA in organ performance and is a church organist. Over the years, she has had a simultaneous career in nursing, retiring two years ago.