Techniques and Music for Singing Bell

When asked if I had an idea for this issue’s Tips & Tools, I’d just finished making a large set of singing sticks to introduce my 6th and 7th graders to the Singing Bell (SB) technique. So the timing was perfect! Here’s the scoop:

Singing Sticks:—To make them: ¾”, 1” or 1¼” dowels work well. Choose the clearest, straightest stock you can from the bins at any hardware store. I like softer wood—like poplar. Plan on 7-10” or so per stick—a 48” dowel can yield 6 sticks—each a little shorter than 8” due to the saw kerf. Cut to length, ease the edges and sand the dowel lightly. They work fine just like this, but for more grip, you can coat half of the stick with Plasti-Dip—available in many colors.

Left: Dip very slowly into can. Right: Pull out very slowly as well.

Follow instructions carefully! Dip and remove stick very slowly. (Photos A1. and A2.) I scrape the bottom of the dowel off on the edge of the can. Don’t mess with the surface after this—it’s very touchy. (It can be wiped off and re-dipped; cover your hand with a plastic bag to do this.) My total cost for 15 Singing Sticks (wood dowels and a can of Plasti-dip) was about $30. You can also buy singing sticks from a few different companies. Search online for “Singing Bell Sticks.”

Singing Bell Technique

Give every ringer one stick and one bell in the lower range (they are easier to “sing”) – holding the bell upright and still, “stir” the stick vertically around the outer rim of the stationary bell maintaining constant and even contact at all times. Some like holding the stick “thumb-up” (Photo B1. on right), while others like to hold it more like a pencil.

Two grips for stick: left “Pencil,” right “thumb up.”

(Note also in this picture a 1” band of rubber around the top of the stick on the left: some of my ringers like starting the singing with the rubber and then sliding the stick to wood – so this stick would be used, turned over, to do that.)

Some ringers move the bell and the stick in a symbiotic motion to get the singing started, and then calm down the bell motion and continue with the stirring. Others start with a completely still bell and allow only the stick to move. An online search for “Handbell singing bell” will pop up demos and pieces. SB works better with lower bells but can be used across the range.

Watch Kathy Kellum, of Queen City Bronze in Cincinnati, Ohio, demonstrate the singing bell technique.

By keeping an even pressure and speed while stirring, the bell should start to “sing.” A soft stick tap or even ringing the bell can also get it started. When it starts to sing, slow down the circle and ease up on the pressure. It’s a balancing act to keep it going without a “sizzle” from the stick, especially if the stick is bare wood. Practice varying the speed and pressure to change the dynamics of the tone. It’s like riding a bike, when you finally “get it” for the first time, you wonder why it was so hard before. Some bells do sing better than others, so try them across your range.

I find that ringers new to Singing Bell often choke down on the stick, keeping their hand very close to the bell with almost half of the stick below the bell, making regular circles harder to control. I advise them to “lift” the stick up so only an inch or two is below the rim of the bell, and this seems to help. Suggestions like “stirring a cauldron” or “keep the stick vertical” also might help.

Left: Stick too “low” on bell rim. Right: Stick “lifted up on bell rim.

Singing Bell Music

Singing Bell is being used more and more as composers create pieces to accommodate this ethereal sound. A quick online search showed almost 300 pieces that feature SB. Study a score carefully to see if the SB requirements fit your group. Some pieces NEED a good bit of reassigning, since SB allows but one bell per person. You might also be able to adapt a piece with long mallet rolls or a repeated drone note or chord. Search for “Singing bell” on any music website.

“Behold the Heavens – B” (L1 3-5 oct.) was carefully written as a “first singing bell experience” to include as many SB ringers as possible in appropriate range—one bell per ringer—without having to reassign any notes. Ringers will experience SB from silence (M. 1) and SB after ringing it first (M. 16). To keep the upper treble ringers involved, ringers from A5 up can use bells, suspended mallets, or handchimes (and a Belltree may be used in the first half). Written in Lydian mode, it has an “other worldly” feel. Feel free to adapt this piece as needed to suit your ringers and add percussion or additional instruments. This piece and its companion (“A” for 2-4 oct.) will be published in Spring 2019.

DOWNLOAD sheet music for “Behold the Heavens – B” by Kathleen Wissinger

CLICK HERE to hear the music