Handbells and handchimes in schools in Western Canada are prolific and used both in classroom settings and as an extracurricular component.  In fact, we have far more bells in schools than we do in churches.  Students usually start ringing handbells or handchimes in grade 4, but some start ringing as early as kindergarten.

Teachers typically have 3 octaves of handbells or handchimes and some have both. They are often paid for by the parent council fund raising committee. Those teachers that have handchimes always work towards getting handbells too.

Although each province in Canada has its own music curriculum, standards which are similar include a focus for the student to be a listener, performer, and composer. The teachers must integrate into their class settings: a variety of musical styles, an awareness and appreciation of music of the many cultures represented in Canada, insights into music through meaningful musical activities, self-expression and creativity, musical skills and knowledge.

“On the Road,” composed and directed by Betty B. Radford
at the Greater Edmonton Youth Handbell Festival in April 2016

I asked three master teachers, Lorna Walker of Edmonton Public Schools, Glenda Pickering from Elk Island Public Schools and Jan Nordstrand from Burnaby School District about their handbell programs. These teachers are passionate about handbells and handchimes in their music programs and were pleased to share some ideas of how they use these amazing instruments in their classroom. Here are some of their ideas:

  • Use handbells and handchimes with stories to represent characters, with sounds and activities, such as having the children going up the stairs to demonstrate that handchimes change sound as they get higher. “Billy Goats Gruff” works well for the use of bells or chimes for different characters. Organize the handchimes in C pentatonic with the Big Billy Goat using the 4s, the Middle Billy Goat using the 5s, the Little Billy Goat the 6s and the Troll with the sharps and flats with an F or B for dissonance. Other stories that work well include “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” or “Mortimer” by Robert Munsch. Let the students be creative and decide how their character will be played.
  • Write or illustrate about playing a handbell or handchime, how it makes them feel, what it means to them to be part of the class being successful together. Write how a handchime sounds to them.
  • Recognize, read, and play simple rhythm patterns focusing on both sound and silence.
  • Add simple ostinatos to poetry. Dennis Lee poems work well for this as they are rhythmic and flow easily. Sounds to follow the poem can be high or low, loud or soft, and move up or down.
  • Add handbells and handchimes to an Orff accompaniment by focusing on the cluster chords found in the music.
  • Explore pentatonic creating melodies together as a class then divide students into groups to create a new melody to a known rhythm.
  • Learn a handbell and handchime piece in class. Reflect on how they feel at completion at success of the ensemble.
  • Have students keep a log in their music dutoang and give themselves a participation score and tell why they deserved that mark.
  • Compose a melody on handbells and handchimes and put it into a note program such as Finale or Sibelius to learn about notation using the computer. Children feel like a real composer when they do this.
  • Do a sing and ring with an accompaniment for familiar 2 and 3 chord rounds.
  • Write a poem as a class and then divide the students into groups of 4 to create melodies to go with the poem. Have students create small presentations for the rest of the class. Give the students the freedom to make it as long or short as they like and the freedom to use whatever instruments are in the classroom that they felt best express the words of the poem.

Canadian songs for handbells are hard to find. “Land of the Silver Birch” is a very popular one in the key of D minor. The following are the activities one teacher, Lorna Walker, did with her grade 4 class.

  • Teach the children to sing the song.
  • After the students have learned the song, have them sing it again with the D4 handbell or handchime as a whole note accompaniment. Discuss the timbre of the sound. Does it go with the feeling of the song? • Add more handchimes, D4, A4, D5 A5 and have the students sing and have the handchimes players move to the half note while playing.
  • Switch several times, and discuss the sounds of the handchimes that are surrounding the singers. • Add the Buffalo drum or another hand drum with a deep sound to play on the quarter note. • Discuss how accompaniment enriches the sound of the melody. Discuss how the note D and A sound together. Review major and minor chords.
  • Brainstorm what other percussion instruments might go with the song. Repeat trying out the different instruments.
  • Add Orff instruments to assist with the DA bordun (An explanation of a bordun can be found at http://herdingcatsgeorge.blogspot.ca/2010/07/bordun.html)
  • Create a B section for the song, using improvisation (questions and answer). Hand out the DA bordun in 2 groups DFGACD, all octaves
  • Have students accompany their singing using random ringing techniques. The teacher can play the melody on a recorder for a different take.
  • Discuss the pentatonic D Minor scale on which this piece is based. Have students create with handbells and handchimes a simple 8 beat melody (questions) and the other group create 8 beats (answer)
  • Perform ABA.

For schools with large class sizes that have only 2 octaves of handbells or handchimes, there are ways to make this work in your classroom so that everyone is involved and takes ownership for a part of the whole team.

Some ideas that I have seen work effectively in classrooms are:

  • Placing the foam on the floor allows 3 sides of the foam to be used for students to sit. It also makes the set up time much quicker if you are not able to have the tables and foam set up all the time.
  • Ring in partners. This is a bit like Karaoke bells where one partner rings the handbells or handchimes and the other partner air rings that same part.
  • Have the students count up how many times their bells play in one piece and have them decide when to change from one person to another. Children like to view things as fair so having them take ownership for who plays the notes and when, works effectively. This also requires the teacher to teach the passing of the bell during the musical line.
  • If you do not want to air ring handbells, one partner can track the notes as the music is played so that both partners know exactly where they are at all times. No one likes to get lost when playing handbells as a team.
  • During performance, which is usually done with tables, have the partners stand behind each other and change according to the plan they have made. If you are playing 2 pieces of music, have each child play an entire piece on their own.

Finding appropriate music for students in public schools continues to be a challenge. I asked the teachers what resources they found the most helpful. They unanimously agreed that “Ring Dance Play” by Griff Gall and Paul Weller (GIA Publishing) and “Beginning Busy Ringers” by Kirtsy Mitchell (AGEHR Publishing) provided the most support for classroom music.

Malmark has designed a new teacher-focused website titled ChimeWorks, where you can join for a small fee and then use the ideas presented and add your own ideas that you have found tried and true in the classroom. You can find this at www.chimeworks.com. A Canadian website has been developed by Donna Rhodenhizer and Andy Duiker for classroom music that can be found at www.redcastlepublishing.com There is also a specific link to handbell and handchime music for elementary children or very beginning ringers at http://www.redcastlepublishing.com/RRM-InstrumentalScores.html where you can purchase the online resource of your choice. Donna and her partner Andy Duiker are from the east coast of Canada and offer support for music teachers in a variety of ways.

Handbells and handchimes are often used in classrooms but many teachers also have extracurricular groups that perform in a variety of venues including shopping malls, hotel lobbies and senior centers. Teachers can have as many as four noon hour and after-school groups for those children who love to ring handbells and handchimes. Some of the teachers accept anyone who wants to come and is committed to the extra time and some will have only auditioned students who already read music.

Handbell Youth Festivals, composed of students from grades 4 to 9 are very common throughout Alberta in the spring of each year. Handbell choirs are required to present a piece of music of their own choosing as well as take part in a mass ring. The adjudicator has the opportunity to adjudicate each group as well as work with them for about 15 minutes to move them to the next level of handbell ringing. This might include a technique that needs to be corrected or a new way to end a piece that is not written in the music. The mass ring rehearsal takes place over three 15-minute time slots during the morning followed by a presentation to the audience at the end of the festival. One city has a Ring and Sing so vocal choirs or handbells choirs or a combination of both work together to perform. A similar format is followed by a Ring and Sing final performance.

I am a retired teacher who loved extracurricular handbells. At times, I would have a double choir of handbells and handchimes. We played for school assemblies, Christmas concerts and the Volunteer tea to name a few, and we always attended or hosted the Youth Festival each year. Now I spend my time in classrooms sharing ideas with teachers and children in and near Edmonton, Alberta.

Having handbells and handchimes in classrooms and for extracurricular purposes, enhances the musical experience for many students. For those who are not athletic, it offers the opportunity to play on a team – a musical team where every person is important. We are so fortunate to have school communities who feel that music is so important and want to provide unique experiences for the children.