By Rev. Henry Gerike, cantor, Church of the Reformation, Affton, Mo.
There is no doubt that handbell choirs enrich the worship life of many congregations. While many bell choirs focus primarily on anthems that are played as prelude, postlude or responses within the service, there are other ways to utilize handbells without a lot of rehearsal.
A low bell can be used to toll the beginning of the worship hour before the opening hymn. This concept can be expanded into a simple bell processional. Ideas for such processionals can be found in Richard Proulx’s Tintinnabulum (GIA, G-4982). The tolling of a handbell is especially effective before Advent or Lenten midweek services. This tolling could take the place of an organ or instrumental prelude.
Bells can used to give the pastor or choir the pitch for chanted versicles and response, such as the opening of Matins, Morning Prayer, Vespers or Evening Prayer, the Kyrie, the Preface of the Communion liturgy. Practice with the choir or pastor to be sure the pitch is communicated. Tone clusters of several bells can accompany the chanting of psalms, as suggested by John Folkening in his Handbells in the Liturgical Service (Concordia Publishing House).
One of the easiest ways of involving bells in the liturgy is through the use of random ringing of the bells on a hymn stanza or a canticle in the liturgy. In planning for this practice, determine the musical key of the music. Then determine the first, fifth and sixth pitches of that key’s scale. Random ringing of bells is especially effective on a hymn’s last stanza. For instance, the hymn, “All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night” (Lutheran Service Book 883), is in the key of G major. The first pitch for random ringing would be a “G”, the fifth pitch would be a “D”, and the sixth pitch an “E.” Make certain that the lowest pitch would be a “G”; then any other “G,” “D,” “E” may be used, determined by the number of ringers present. The bells are rung without a coordinated pattern — in random tempo and volume — by each ringer. Random bell ringing is like Tabasco sauce — a little goes a long way. Instead of ringing for an entire stanza, begin with the third phrase, gradually increasing in speed and volume. When the stanza finishes, the bells should continue ringing even after the organ has stopped. After 10 seconds or so, the players should, under the direction of the organist, ring at once all the bells and hold the chord, letting the bells vibrate until the sound decays.
Here are the 1, 5, 6 bells for each of these keys:
C Major: C, G, A
D Major: D, A, B
E-flat Major: E-flat, B-flat, C
E Major: E, B, C-sharp
F Major: F, C, D
G Major: G, D, E
A-flat Major: A-flat, E-flat, F
A Major: A, E, F-sharp
B-flat Major: B-flat, F, G
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