Behind The Magic:
A Closer Look At Handbells And Handheld Chimes
by Phyllis T. Hentz
There is nothing quite like the sound of handbells and handheld chimes. Whether you
hear them accenting worship, accompanying a choir or in outreach beyond the church
building and whether the folks playing them are young or old, skilled or just plain
enthusiastic, handbells and handheld chimes speak with a sound of joyful praise. It is no
wonder that so many churches of all denominations have found exciting ways to put them to
use in worship, music, education and outreach ministries.
The following article features some thoughts about how handbells and handheld
chimes work, what to look for in a bell instrument purchase and making the most of
handbells or handheld chimes once a church has gotten started.
An Inside Look At Handbells
Before anyone even picks up a handbell, it is important to pay attention to some
strictly non-musical factors that can make a difference in the overall playing experience
such as the handle and handguard. For comfortable ringing and long life, the bell’s handle
should be smooth, scratch-resistant and reinforced to maintain its shape. It also should
be easily removable from the bell casting in case replacement becomes necessary. Between
the handle and the casting is a handguard. Sellersville, Penn.,-based Schulmerich Bells
recommends looking for one with a gentle curve to fit the hand such as the Master
Touch™ Guardian handguard. A choice of black or black and gold handguards can help
ringers identify their notes easily.
Inside the handbell ringers will find the yoke and clapper mechanism. More complex than
anyone may have imagined, it is designed not to let the clapper swing freely, but to
provide a controlled motion both before and after striking. Much of that control comes
from an elastothane spring built into the yoke. Schulmerich’s feature a special contour to
maintain maximum volume and clarity and include adjustable mechanical stops for precise
tension control. The clapper itself swings from an axle that must perform quietly and
reliably. An axle of stainless steel with nylon bearings should provide years of
trouble-free operation without lubrication.
At the bottom of the clapper is the clapper head typically made of synthetic rubber.
Clapper heads should be adjustable for setting each bell’s “voice.” The
adjustment range can be as simple as three increments. Quick-Adjust™ clapper heads
can be hand-adjusted to “soft,” “medium” and “hard.”
Infinitely adjustable heads, such as the Select-A-Strike™ clapper heads, offer more
tonal refinements, but typically require a screwdriver to change settings.
Believe it or not, the exact spot where the clapper contacts the bell casting has an
enormous impact on the sound of a handbell. The point of impact is called the “strike
point,” and ideal strike points can be determined through testing. Once identified,
manufacturers align the bell casting, yoke and handle locating pin so that the clapper is
positioned properly for the life of the bell. Finally, Schulmerich adds a bell-shaped
(campanaform) indicator on the handle to identify how the bell should be held to utilize
the strike point by the ringer.
An Inside Look At Handheld Chimes
Just as comfort is a key issue when choosing a handbell, it is a good place to begin in
choosing a handheld chime. The main component of any handheld chime instrument is the
sounding tube which functions as both the “bell” and the handle. Usually a
hollow, sturdy aluminum extrusion, the tube traditionally has been either round or square
in shape. To maximize ringing ease, Schulmerich’s engineers developed an octagonal tube
for the MelodyChime instruments that fits any hand–large or small–comfortably.
The clapper mechanism of a handheld chime instrument serves the same function as the
clapper of a handbell, and, therefore, it should be very similar in design. Remember to
check that the components in any handheld chime indicate a real attention to solid
performance and long life. For example, MelodyChime clappers move on the same lifetime
stainless steel axle in the same nylon bearings as in the handbell, and Schulmerich uses
the same hexagonal solid brass clapper shafts as well (although they are nickel-plated to
resist tarnish). Clapper heads, too, bear a strong resemblance to those on a fine set of
handbells. Look for fast voicing adjustments on the low and middle notes and flocked
rubber heads on the low notes for that full, rich sound. Finally, there is one more tool
for customizing sound: Be sure ringers can adjust the handheld chimes’ response easily
with a little rubber bumper mounted on the hexagonal shaft.
Although handheld chimes produce their tone a little bit differently than handbells
do–more on the order of a highly evolved tuning fork than a true bell–this does not mean
that hitting each instrument’s ideal strike point is not important. On the contrary, it is
crucial. The only way to be certain that it happens is for the manufacturer to
custom-tailor clapper shaft lengths on a note-by-note basis.
In addition to factors that affect comfort and sound, churches want to make sure that
their handheld chimes have a durable finish that can take plenty of abuse. Schulmerich
uses a baked-on powdercoating in white for naturals and black for accidentals. Note
markings must be clear and highly visible. Whether a church’s ringers are novices or
experts, they will appreciate it.
Where To Begin: How Many Bells?
The size of a church’s first handbell or hand chime set depends both on the budget and
on the number of students to be served. Although single-octave sets are available, the
practical minimum for making music and teaching an appreciable number of students is the
two-octave set, 25 bells from G4 (the G below Middle C) to G6. The maximum practical
number of students for a two-octave set is 15; the ideal number is seven or eight.
Bell sets grow by the addition of instruments on both ends of the set. A three-octave
set, for example, consists of 37 bells from C4 to C7. A set of this size can be rung by as
many as 22 students, but a more practical number–allowing each ringer to handle two
diatonics–is 11 students. Eventually, large or musically adventurous groups can work
toward playing sets as large as six octaves with 73 bells, from G2 to G8.
However, growth through acquisition of bells only is one side of the story; growth
through instruction, practice and commitment is the other. Even with a limited range of
bells, the devoted instructor and ringers can pursue complex music of an almost limitless
range. With the possible exception of the small, two-octave range, truly challenging music
is available for choirs of every size. It is worth pointing out that simple material is
available for choirs of all sizes as well.
Music teachers have little to fear when embarking on a handbell or handheld chime
program for the first time. Basic playing techniques are not only easy to teach; they are
simpler to learn from readily available training materials. There even is a complete
handbell curriculum for grades 4 through 12 developed by the Lima City Schools and
accepted by the state of Ohio (copies are available from Schulmerich Bells).
Where To Begin: Care And Performance Supplies
Handbells and handheld chimes are relatively self-contained instruments and need little
in the way of support equipment. They come with hard shell cases with individual cavities
for each bell or handheld chime and should be stored in their cases when not in use.
Although little maintenance is required, the proper care, handling and polishing of bells
should be carried out by students as part of the basic instructional program. Students
should wear clean, lint-free gloves when handling the handbells, and occasional polishing
with a good-quality bronze polish available from the bells’ manufacturer will help
preserve the bells’ finish and appearance. No such steps, of course, are necessary to
preserve the far-tougher finish of handheld chimes.
Handbell manufacturers offer a wide range of additional products to enhance care and
performance, but only a few are required for a new program. For example, special handbell
tables, built to the proper height for comfortable ringing and supplied in three-foot
lengths for easy configuration, are nice to have, but any sturdy tables will do for
getting started. However, table pads, typically of soft, four-inch thick foam, are
necessary both to protect handbells from hard table tops and to permit certain ringing
techniques like plucking, martellato and malleting.
Where To Begin: Resources And Support
Probably the most important element to consider in a handbell purchase is the
reputation and local presence of the instrument manufacturer’s representative. Look for a
supplier with a long history in handbell manufacture and support and a well-trained,
experienced representative in your area. It can be worthwhile to have someone nearby to
call on for recommendations and counsel regarding music, playing techniques, training and
Other key resources are the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers of Dayton, Ohio,
and Handbell Exploration International of Phoenix. Both offer fascinating seminars and can
be an entry point into the world of bell music.
Once You’ve Begun
The sooner churches start ringing, the sooner their choir will be wanting to perform,
so it is important to keep in mind the basics of managing any performance program, however
informal it may be.
First, establish and stick to a rehearsal schedule that is convenient for everyone,
ringers and directors alike.
Second, keep performances and rehearsals fresh by periodically updating the choir’s
music. This also is important for keeping pace with the ringers’ abilities. Hand in hand
goes periodic evaluation of your bell and chime selection with an eye toward possible
expansion as students become more advanced and the choir grows. Also, do not be afraid to
mix handbells with handheld chimes.
Finally, look for new ways to incorporate handbells and handheld chimes into the life
and work of the congregation. Church music leaders may want to investigate Handbells in
the Liturgy, a detailed and inspirational handbook published by Concordia Press and
funded by a grant from Schulmerich Bells.
Phyllis T. Hentz is the music director for Schulmerich Bells headquartered in
Sellersville, Penn. For more information about handbells, handheld chimes, carillons or
any related questions, feel free to contact the company at (800) 423-7464 or by mail at
Carillon Hill, Sellersville, PA. 18960.