by Andrea Handley

Ideas for answering the challenge to make handbells a meaningful and integrated part of a worship service, rather than an occasional add-on prelude or postlude.

In my years directing church handbell choirs, I have found significant challenges to making handbells a meaningful and integrated part of a worship service, rather than an occasional add-on prelude or postlude. There are usually space issues and lots of logistics involved with people-moving and bell-moving. There are those awkward moments of silence while the people-moving is going on, and usually at least one person who “clanks” one bell against another, which can undo the “meaningful” in a nanosecond. As a director, I am always concerned that any unusual element added to a worship service is an enhancement to and not a distraction from worship. And with handbells, there are numerous things that can potentially make them a distraction.

Having said that, I am equally aware of a handbell choir’s unique ability to enhance and add meaning to regular events throughout a worship service. Just watching a handbell choir in action can be an object lesson in how the church community should work together. Certainly the beauty of the instrument itself can be a transcendent experience. And the unique sound of handbells playing familiar hymn arrangements can offer fresh inspiration and bring listeners closer to God in worship.

As handbells are normally not used on an every-Sunday basis, they can be used to add a surprise element to events of worship that can become ho-hum on a weekly basis. Surprise­—in a good way—can be an important element in drawing attention to those events and making them more meaningful.

For instance, imagine “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” sung as an introit from the back of the sanctuary by the choir, in unison and free rhythmically, in chant-like style. Now imagine adding random ringing, placing ringers on all four sides of the sanctuary in the following arrangement:

  • Group 1: front of sanctuary: Eb5, F5, G5, Bb5 (2, 3 or 4 ringers)
  • Group 2: east side of sanctuary: Eb4, G4, Bb4, Eb6, G6 (3-5 ringers)
  • Group 3: west side of sanctuary: Eb3, Bb3 (1-2 ringers)
  • Group 4: balcony or back of sanctuary: Bb6, C7, Eb7, Bb7 (2-4 ringers)

Group 1 starts ringing first (beginning with Eb5), and after 15-20 seconds of random ringing, the women sing verse 1. Group 2 comes in following verse 1, and after 10-15 seconds the men sing verse 2. Following verse 2 Groups 3 and 4 enter; after 5-10 seconds of ringing the men and women sing verse 3. The groups then exit in the reverse order they entered, ending with a final Eb5 as the last note. Lower bells ring longer note values, with note values getting shorter as the bells are higher. The unexpected addition of bells from each side and the back of the sanctuary, increasing the sound in volume and range add not only surprise but build excitement and inspiration.

Here’s another idea: Many anthems have bell-like passages in the organ or piano accompaniment (take a look at Gustav Holst’s “Christmas Day”, Rehearsal letter M). Consider placing single handbells in the hands of a few choir members, out of sight, and then have them raise them and play the bell-tolling part in the middle of the anthem along with the organ. The surprise involved adds to the celebratory nature of the music and text, enhancing the overall message of the anthem greatly.

A third idea: Begin a service with a handbell processional. There’s nothing like the surprise of ringers marching right past congregants in the aisles to add a spirit of praise and expectancy to the opening of the worship service. There are pieces written specifically for that purpose, beginning with a section that’s easily memorized and can be repeated until the ringers get behind the tables and can then read the music from that point on. One such piece is one that I wrote, “Procession and Hymn” (Red River Music, BL5008). Another possibility is to take one of the many processionals that Barbara Semmann has written in her “Psalms for All Seasons” I and II (Agape, 1265 and 1383), and once behind the tables go into an introduction to a hymn that’s in the same key and meter.

Another tip about hymn accompanying: If your organist likes to modulate to another key for the last verse, it’s possible for your handbell ringers to transpose without rewriting the hymn accompaniment you’re using. If the modulation is to be from F to G, for instance, during the modulation (assuming it’s long enough), have them borrow the bells that are a whole step higher than their usual bells and play the same music they may have played for the first verse but pretending they have their usual bells in their hands. It saves time and makes them rather impressed with themselves that they can transpose.

These are just a few ideas to help handbell choirs become a meaningful part of worship by adding surprise, and thus added inspiration, to the worship experience. Think surprise—your handbell ringers will feel that they’re contributing more and your congregation will be grateful for the inspiration that handbells add to worship.