My first memory of a handbell is of one being rung in the school playground calling me back in from playtime for more lessons. Years later when I worked at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon I used to absolutely love using one of these old school style handbells to let people know the show was about to start, or re-start after the interval. It is mean I know, but it was particularly amusing if I made someone jump when I started ringing the bell.
What is a handbell?
A handbell is a tuned percussion instrument. Percussion instruments are instruments that are struck, shaken or scraped. Many percussion instruments are made so that they do not play a specific note, however tuned percussion instruments are made in such a way that they can produce a specific note.
Here are a couple of fun examples of music played with handbells from YouTube:
How do you play handbells?
Handbells are metal bells, with a clapper (sort of like a ball) inside the bell. The clapper is hinged, or in the case of the handbells I have at home mounted on a spring inside the bell and the clapper hits the sides of the bell to produce the sound. Handbells traditionally had a leather handle, but many, like mine at home, now have a plastic handle. To sound the bell you raise the handle up and down, or side to side so that the clapper hits the sides of the bell.
You can also play the handbells by placing the on a table or floor and hitting the outside of the bell with a beater.
The set of handbells I have at home are lovely, brightly coloured bells that can easily be played by children, even quite young children. I have a set of 8 at home (although my children have put one of them somewhere in the house that is not our music box so I can’t find it at the moment). They absolutely LOVE grabbing the bells and ringing them as loud as they possibly can do!
Each of my bells in this set are pitched to a note from the scale of C major – I may do a separate blog post explaining what scales are and how they work at a later date if people are interested in knowing more about them. When they first arrived in our house each bell was labelled with a sticker on the top of the handle with the note it was pitched to along with a number from 1 to 8, 1 being C, the first note of the scale for these handbells. Helpfully, given that most of the stickers have long since disappeared (children and stickers!) the same number that was on the sticker is also labelled on the main body of the bell.
As the bells are tuned, and each one is labelled, you can learn to play very simple tunes on the bells and play those with your children. I’ll be honest here though, even as a musician trying to show my children how to play a tune on the handbells they have completely ignored my attempts and just grabbed any old bell and rung it. To be fair to them, they were quite young at the time, and my now 7 year old may be more interested in playing an actual tune, but as young children they just think it is far more fun to shake the bells – and they do so love to do that!
This set of handbells is more expensive than many of the instruments I write about on here. The set I have at home was given to us as a gift for my daughter’s first birthday, and at the time of writing this blog post a very similar set of handbells was available on Amazon (other retailers available, of course), priced at £19.29.
Handbells and babies/toddlers
As we all know, babies and toddlers put pretty much everything in their mouths. When they are tiny they do this as part of their exploration of the world, and as they get older I think they just do it for fun – in the case of my 4 year old, I am sure she still sticks loads of things in her mouth just because I ask her not to! In addition, babies are not able to control the movement of their hands and arms, and young children. Bells are made of hard materials that will hurt if they are hit against your little one’s bodies, and the clapper can come away from the bell and be a choking hazard if the bell is mouthed. So young children should not be allowed to play with the bells unsupervised and you should keep a close eye on your children when they are playing with them. They are a lot of fun, though, and for my children they have been well worth putting up with the noise the children make when playing the handbells.
I will leave you with one final video I enjoyed of people who are far more skilled than I am playing handbells, and this time there is added Lego animation: