Handbell opportunities between Palm Sunday and Easter

The eight days of Palm Sunday through Easter are full of drama and musical opportunity. The week begins and ends with festivity and passes through meditation. Because bells are a percussion instrument, people who plan worship often think of this medium only for the festive bookends, so special creativity is required for enhancing the contemplative nature of Holy Week.

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday generally includes some sort of procession. You might have the bells play any one of the many processionals out there; and/or they can join the organ for the opening hymn. A couple of hints about that:

  • With the organ doing its thing, anything below about G4 will be mostly for visual effect and keeping ringers involved.
  • If the hymn has harmonic changes on every beat, most often the ringers can play whole notes, or at the most half notes. It doesn’t need to be complicated
  • A busy treble figure that can be repeated throughout the last stanza is another great idea. Below are a couple of options, moveable to whatever key you need. Or you and your ringers can make up your own.
  • If in your Palm Sunday service the sermon is a pivot from triumph to grief, try following it with something very simple, like “What Wondrous Love is This,” with flute or organ just playing the melody above a singing bell drone and a few sparse chords.
Maundy Thursday

A Maundy Thursday liturgy usually includes scripture about the last supper, and along with communion might include something about foot washing or serving each other in some other way. Might this be shown symbolically by the ringers by having ringers use a polishing cloth on a neighbor’s bells and carefully put them back in place before playing one stanza of the hymn tune Rest (“Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”)? What else might you do to demonstrate being caregivers? Whatever you do, be sure you both choose and perform the music smoothly.

Good Friday

A good descriptive word for Good Friday is “stark.” Whether the service is built around the “seven last words” or some other structure, the very nature of bells, which might have seemed questionable for such an occasion, can be perfect. Maybe one of these notions will spark your creativity:

  • A silent procession at the very beginning of the service, bells in hands, can set an appropriately austere ambience.
  • If you use a psalm that day, you’ll find at the right a refrain to use with Psalm 130.
  • After the rest of the liturgy is over, when the candles are extinguished, ring either a low bell or a slightly dissonant chord 33 times, once for each of Jesus’ 33 years. Be sure someone is counting very carefully! You might want to put a note in the bulletin explaining the symbolism.
  • This is also a service in which a handbell solo or small ensemble can be effective if carefully thought through. “Simple” is good—anything which might be taken as showy is problematic. On Good Friday, I like to use bells on a well-known hymn, simply playing the melody accompanied by organ. Think of a hymn appropriate to the occasion, but one which isn’t being sung in the service.

Easter brings its own joys and concerns to the church musician. We want to celebrate in a great way, without necessarily “putting on a show” for those we haven’t seen since Christmas Eve; they may or may not come back just because of the festive music. The best contribution we can make beyond playing a prelude or an anthem might be serving as sparkle or spice, heightening the joyful experience.

Many handbell leaders aren’t involved in the nitty gritty of planning festival services, but it’s appropriate to ask to be included in the process of worship design and offer some ideas. Think about what liturgical elements might be enhanced by the use of bells. Here are a few possibilities:

  • The entrance of the light (bringing in the new Paschal candle)—Singing bells in the bass and quiet treble random ringing.
  • The psalm refrain—just write out the accompaniment of whatever the congregation will sing so the bells can either lead it or join what the organ is doing.
  • A very brief fanfare following the reading of the gospel, perhaps just three fast one-octave scales played LV.
  • Something like the following repetitive flourishes on the opening or closing hymn suggested for Palm Sunday.
  • Is there anything bells might add to a choral anthem?

Finally, whatever you come up with for anything out of the ordinary, share it with your handbell friends and colleagues at the next gathering, and store their ideas for next time.

William H. Mathis is an active conductor and clinician in both the choral and handbell fields. He is the founder and music director of the Twin Cities ensemble Bells of the Lakes, Artistic Director of Hennepin Chime and Chorus Polaris, and co-conductor of StreetSong Minnesota. Bill has served the Handbell Musicians of America in several capacities, generally involving music or teaching, and as an Area and national officer. As a festival conductor and workshop clinician, he leads local, Area, and national HMA events, giving special emphasis to teaching rehearsal technique, musicianship, and bells in worship. His compositions are found in the catalogs of 15 publishers, including the Choristers Guild resource After the Prelude.

CLICK HERE to download a refrain for Psalm 130

Permission is granted by Choristers Guild for current members of Handbell Musicians of America to download and use this music. Must hold a current membership and may not transfer the piece to a non-member.