For Music Teachers

Why Handbells? by Malcolm C. Wilson

The use of ringing instruments (handbells, handchimes or Belleplates®) is a superb method of incorporating the music education principles of Orff and Kodály in the classroom.

Uniquely, ringing involves pupils in visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning - that is, seeing, hearing and actively doing! Ringing instruments can be used in tandem with singing or other classroom instruments with ease - handbells, handchimes or Belleplates® complement the use of many other tuned and untuned percussion instruments available in the school.

Compared to tuned percussion instruments traditionally used in schools (e.g. glockenspiels, xylophones, etc) the handbell family of instruments (handbells, handchimes and Belleplates®) have features which present some advantages viz:

  • The pupil can focus more easily on music or a teacher while performing (e.g. the pupil does not have to worry about a beater missing a glockenspiel bar while eyes are looking at the teacher);
  • Being a kinaesthetic activity means that pupils physically make and stop the sound and thus note values and rests are easily taught in that the child must make the physical action last for the duration of the note value - the visual movements also make it attractive to pupils;
  • The spirit of interdependence and teamwork is fostered as each pupil is essential to the whole;
  • Music reading is more easily graded according to ability as pupils can start with just one note and progressively be in control of greater number of notes as the ability to read music improves;
  • It is a cost-effective form of music making as one set can be used by a whole class at once (and suitable to be used at all stages of a school)

The handbell as a musical instrument today provides a wonderful educational tool for teaching music to children. Effective use of handbells involves teaching children music and performance skills. The skills learned through ringing are transferable to any instrument. But just what makes using handbells as the musical medium such an effective music teaching tool?

Well, for one thing, handbells make instant music. Within five minutes of starting ringing children can be playing chords to accompany a melody sung or played on a piano. Handbells require no tuning on the part of a player so they can start to make music right away making this an instrument which is accessible to all.

Children also very much enjoy the fact that they make music in a group – they learn together how to make the instrument play in the correct place at the correct time, they learn with others the values of notes on the printed page, and they work as a team to replicate rhythmic patterns.

The interaction with others adds to the fun – whether it is learning rhythmic syllables, note values, or music notation, all are introduced and reinforced with games. Being a part of a handbell group fosters community and co-operation. The teaching techniques used to teach ringing can incorporate aspects of well-respected music methods. Schools can incorporate aspects of the Kodály method, which breaks down musical skills and concepts into steps and introduces them gradually, but also constantly reviews and reinforces them through games, movement, and exercises and the use of rhythmic syllables (such as those of Aimé Paris – such as taa, ta-té, etc).

The Dalcroze method also emphasises that movement is an important tool for the internalization of rhythm, and handbell ringing is very much a kinaesthetic activity – where children learn by listening, watching and actively playing – a note is played with a physical movement of the handbell, and the sound is also stopped by another physical movement of the handbell as it damps against the shoulder. Ostinato patterns, echo, improvisation and other techniques associated with the Orff approach can also be incorporated.

The reinforcement of music skills is a part of the progression from a beginning group. As well as musical games, exercises and activities, from the outset the children learn to perform music for audiences. Thus the development of performance skills takes its place alongside working on reading from a music score and adding expression. The music can range from music created by music educators to demonstrate musical concepts all the way through to energetic arrangements of theme music from movies.

A typical session is active throughout with a variety of games and activities to teach or reinforce musical knowledge, as well as working on expression and technique in a previously-learned piece of music, sight-reading new music, honing in on tiny sections of music which involve complex rhythms, or memorising sections to allow performers to focus on the directions of the conductor. With children’s groups the emphasis is on laying the foundations for being able to read music and perform for an audience.

As all children progress, the many and varied techniques of ringing are introduced and developed, as is the ever-increasing musicianship where simply playing the correct note at the correct time is only the start. Increasingly complex music with a greater part played by each individual ringer marks a progression from beginner to advanced ringer. Subtle shades, the ebb and flow of music to convey feeling and engagement with an audience are the aims of all of the groups. Watch this video to see the use of Belleplates® by a primary school.

Classroom Ideas - The Application of Ringing Instruments in Schools

Assembly accompaniment Where the school has regular whole-school assemblies each class takes a turn to accompany a particular week's singing. They practise in class playing the accompaniment chords as displayed on the overhead projector above the song words. The chord number is marked in a different colour to the text. Alternatively (and especially for younger children unable to read the text) the class teacher uses one hand to indicate the chord that is going to be played (e.g. chords I, IV or V would be indicated by one, four or five fingers respectively) and use the other hand to bring in the players on the appropriate beat for that chord.

Echo-ringing Repeating rhythms developed from topic-related word-bank rhythms - the teacher claps or rings a simple rhythm while saying the words with the same syllable rhythm for the pupils to echo back (either all together as a class or perhaps in "chord" groups). At later stages the teacher introduces a new rhythm at the same time as pupils are ringing the echo of the previous rhythm.

Listening Mystery Tunes The teacher points to pupils (each lined up in scale order) to make a familiar melody which the pupils have to identify. Alternatively the letter names may be written on a chalkboard or chart and as the teacher points to each letter in turn pupils play the note they have regardless of octave.

Music reading rhythms Rhythm cards with or without topic words in that rhythm may be held up by the teacher for pupils to respond by playing.

Pentatonic patterns In groups pupils make up patterns using the notes of a pentatonic scale (e.g. G, A, B, D, E at all octaves). They can then be performed by each class group in turn, or all together, or in a set pattern. Later pupils take turn to be conductors, deciding on the sequence of groups and cue signals. For pentatonic songs go here.

Ostinato patterns Making a musical piece by building up a developing pattern of notes into a complex sounding piece.

Rhythmic walking and ringing Walking and ringing randomly to develop rhythm within a steady beat.

Story musical motif patterns Individual pupils or small groups are given a pattern to play that might be suggested by a particular keyword in a story or poem, or simply cued by the narrator of the story or poem. These would initially be teacher-determined patterns but pupils would later devise their own sound pattern for a particular word or phrase.

Create sound effects Pupil improvisation on a theme (e.g. space travel) where group experimentation leads to a sound picture that could accompany expressive movement by another group of pupils.

Extra-Curricular Ringing Groups These complement the music provision in a school by offering a more intensive opportunity for pupils to develop music reading skills. Pupils read from traditional staff notation and may begin with one note each (using music that has basic rhythms and no key changes) progressing to being responsible for four notes each and reading from music that has more complex rhythms and requiring changes of notes. Performance opportunities both within and outside school develop presentation skills for pupils performing in front of audiences.

Below: Malcom C Wilson