by Marilyn Wilgocki

How can we create a handchime or handbell experience with our students, with limited preparation, using just class time to prepare? What readily available opportunities might be utilized for the enjoyment and education of other students, teachers, or members of the community?

Children are born performers! Almost every child or youth I have ever taught in 22 years of classroom work (grades kindergarten through twelve) loves to perform. (Interestingly, I often find that the adults I work with at church love the rehearsals but are not always so keen on actually “performing” in worship.) Kids seem to especially enjoy performing for family members, as we can all testify. But hark! How can we create a handchime or handbell experience with our students, with limited preparation, using just class time to prepare? What readily available opportunities might be utilized for the enjoyment and education of other students, teachers, or members of the community?

Hmm . . . let’s step back a bit. Let’s suppose you are the music teacher at the XYZ public elementary school in a town of 18,000. There are four elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school in the town. Perhaps it is the hub of a surrounding rural area. Or perhaps it is a suburb of an urban area. Or maybe it’s a little city all its own. No matter – music is embedded in the human spirit. Kids of varied backgrounds can and will respond enthusiastically if the art is effectively taught and if the experience proves worthwhile.

Let’s continue our thoughts . . . you, as a music teacher, visit each classroom once a week – twice, if you’re lucky. You’ve worked diligently to highlight the use of handchimes or handbells as part of your music curriculum. Making music with these instruments generally results in instant success. Have you seriously thought about that recently? Ringing a chime or bell results in instant success. You don’t have to explore creating the proper embouchure, or tuning the strings, or moistening a reed. Everyone can ring a bell. (I once had a thalidomide student in my middle school classroom who had only one arm. He loved ringing and used his only arm to do the best he could do. His limitation didn’t stop him for a minute!) So with clear instruction, teacher demonstration and encouragement, a scale can quickly be put into place. Block chords, such as a I-IV-V progression (example – C, F and G triads) can easily be learned. Of course the teacher must present both the proper ringing technique as well as damping technique as part of the total process throughout the lesson. Success – immediate! (If you have read David Ruder’s article under this column in the July/August issue of Overtones, you can see how David’s motivation through change ringing brought great success and much joy to his students in a very short time.)

Perhaps there would be 25 students in the class. If you used two octaves, you could involve 15 students, each ringing one chime/bell. Three octaves would allow for 22 students to do the same. Meanwhile, those students not involved would be watching and learning, ready to jump up and take their turn.

So, what about the performing mentioned earlier in this article? If you have a limited amount of time, if you cannot form a full handbell performing choir to play published compositions for your winter and spring concerts, how can you still provide performance opportunities for your students? Here are a few examples . . .

  • Take a few kids to a science class with some bells/chimes and talk about the metals involved in manufacturing a bell/chime and how the sound is actually created; let your kids be the demonstrators.
  • Offer to play a little fanfare for a special event at the school – maybe for a teachers’ meeting or administrators’ luncheon.
  • Use change ringing or random peals as you visit a social studies class, sharing the use of bells down through history and pointing up their role in calling people together for town meetings, special events and worship services in a community.
  • Challenge a math class with the overtone series, demonstrating the analysis of pitches.
  • For morning announcements over the intercom, invite a few students to play a series of chords, a scale, or arpeggio before and/or after announcements are given.
  • If poetry is being read aloud and shared in an English class, suggest that a couple students assist with a gentle background of sound (like wind chimes) or ring to punctuate particular parts of the poem.
  • Offer to visit a physical education class with the biggest bells you have and demonstrate the muscle power needed to produce a tone, using different techniques (especially the swing).
  • Visit a nearby nursing home or retirement center and play very simple tunes for the listeners; it’s helpful to take along a melody instrument (flute, violin, etc.), which allows the bells to simply play the accompanying chords as they occur; be sure to invite the listeners to hold a bell/chime and ring it – kids love to share their knowledge.
  • Perhaps an art class might wish to sketch a bell/chime player in action, demonstrating body position as various techniques are presented in front of the class, which in turn might be captured on paper.
  • Offer to play a fanfare or even a version of “Taps” at a veterans’ gathering or at a cemetery on Memorial Day or Veterans’ Day in your community.
  • March in your town’s July 4th parade, using random ringing or strong chords as you move along the street; be sure to tie long brightly colored ribbons to your bells so that the visual aspect is also effective.
  • Perform an exciting set of chord progressions for a basketball game; check with your band director so that bells could be part of the music for that sporting event; maybe each time your school scores a basket, a cluster of bells could be rung.
  • Visit with your school’s band, orchestra, or choral director (maybe that’s you) regarding adding bells to an instrumental or choral piece for your winter or spring or special concerts.
  • If your students could work up just a few pieces which might be ready to play, investigate your service clubs in town; again, allow and encourage members of your audience to try their hand at bell ringing with the kids doing the “teaching.”

There are many more opportunities you can surely think of which I’ve not mentioned. The important point is that your classroom experiences can move directly into a performing medium with a little creative planning and initiative. Perhaps your own students could suggest other areas where bells could be added at school or in the community.

So whether your school is elementary, middle, or high school, whether you are located in a rural setting, small town, suburb, urban setting, if you have bells/chimes in your classroom and want to provide easy and successful performance opportunities for your students, there are many creative ways in which this can be accomplished. The excitement and satisfaction experienced by your students will drive the program and enhance the future plans for additional events.

Remember, ringing a bell, for most people, is “instant success.” Why not give that gift to your students? Who knows what these successes might lead to?