Creating alternate assignments has always been a fascination of mine, so I thought I would start an occasional series of solutions to bell assignment issues. The logistics of ringing bells is a constant challenge given that groups only have a limited number of hands to ring a large quantity of bells. There are lots of standard bell assignments; the most common usually starts with position 1 at C4/D4, position 2 at E4/F4, position 3 at G4/A4 ect. up the table. While this assignment is pretty useful for most bell situations, by tweeking this assignment you can create more musicality with your group and master pieces faster. One of the pieces I’m conducting with Tintab this season is “Moonlight Serenade” arranged by Paul Allen. When I sat down to assign this piece, I noticed right away that there were some issues the group was going to immediately run into that I could solve before hand with some alternate assigning. I’ll walk you through my thought process, then give you my complete assignment at the end. If you want to preview the music, hear a recording, or buy the piece, you can head over to the publisher’s website. This assignment is for 5 octaves and 13-14 ringers.
The first thing you’ll notice about Moonlight is that it is broken into three distinct parts; a beautiful chime melody and harmony accompanied by a malletted rhythm section held together with a walking bass line. Handchimes in jazz music are beautiful because they remind me of a Fender Rhodes organ. However, to get the effect of a jazz organ, everything needs to be damped and played precisely and musically. Right away you can spot the issue. The A5/B5 ringer has to play all 4 of their chimes in less than 3 measures. While this can be accomplished using 4-in-hand, it is very difficult to play handchimes 4-in-hand while still being musical and damping out accidentals. I didn’t want to spend too long learning this piece, so I knew I had to figure out how to free up some hands to pass some of those chimes to other ringers. Looking through the music, the C6/D6 and E6/F6 ringers have similar issues with accidentals. This is jazz after all.
Since I knew I didn’t have any free hands available in the treble, I turned to the bass section to see if I could free up some ringers. The first thing that jumped out at me was the walking bass line. I love walking bass lines. They sound hip and swanky when played musically. So, I decided to give the whole bottom octave (C3-C4) to one bass ringer and let her have fun walking the bass line. We gave her two black Greig Ashurst bass mallets, which are only recommended down to G3, but gave the bass line a sharp, crisp sound that mimics an upright bass.
Speaking of mallets, the rest of the bass ringers who are playing the rhythm section I had use a softer mallet than usual. This gave them a more muted sound almost like the sax section in a big band.
With all of that malletting in the bass I was able to free up 2 ringers. I gave those ringers pretty much all of the accidental chimes; specifically Ab5, B5, C#6, Eb6, and F#6. This eliminated much of the need for 4-in-hand in the chime section. There is still a D7 chime that’s pretty easy to shelly, and a G#6 that pops up occasionally, but overall this break down allows the chime section to be played musically and precisely without much practice.
I was feeling very proud of myself, until I looked at the middle section, rung on bells.
Right away I noticed a problem, the bass part is all rung. By eliminating the chime changes I had created a nightmare for my bass ringer. However, 4-in-hand on bells is much easier than chimes and the jazz chords could be played cleanly on bells without having to reassign them. This left my two alternate chime ringers with nothing to do, so I shifted them down to help the lower octave. Since my bass ringer Mel is a beast, she didn’t need too much help. By having them play a few of her notes we were able to get the whole thing smooth and clean. To help with the transition between bells and chimes, I had the alternate chime ringers bring all their equipment to the bass end of the table. This did create a big split between the chimes, but since there were enough chimes playing the sound evened out before reaching the audience.
You might also notice in the clip above that the E6/F6 ringer has to play Eb6, E6, F6, F#6 and E7 within 3 measures. While I was doing all this other assigning I went ahead and moved the E7 up to the B6/C7 position.
Did I have to do all this reassigning? Of course not. All of our ringers are very talented and using the standard assignment our group could have figured out how to get all the notes in. The beauty of alternate assignments is that it cleaned up many of the musical aspects of the piece. One person playing the whole walking bass line allows them to be more expressive, while throwing more ringers at complicated jazz chords keeps each chord clean and precise. Plus, with this assignment the group was able to learn the piece extremely quickly. After just a couple runs the piece was basically performance ready.
Here is a listing of the full assignment we used in the order they stood at the tables:
- C3-B3 Bells
- Ab5, B5, Chimes (F3 bell occasionally)
- C#6, Eb6, F#6 Chimes
- C4, D4 Bells
- Eb4, E4, F4, F#4 Bells
- G4, G#4, A4 Bells
- Bb4, B4, C5, C#5 Bells
- Db5, D5, Eb5, E5 Bells
- F5, F#5, G5, G#5 Bells; F5, G5 Chimes
- Ab5, A5, Bb5, B5 Bells; A5, Bb5 Chimes
- C6, C#6, D6, D7 Bells; C6, D6, D7 Chimes
- Eb6, E6, F6, F#6 Bells; E6, F6 Chimes
- G6, G#6, A6 Bells; G6, G#6, A6 Chimes
- Bb6, B6, C7, E7 Bells; B6, C7 Chimes
Remember that 2 and 3 can help the bass ringers play as many rung notes as needed, depending on your bass ringers’ skill. Also, if you only have 13 ringers, positions 4 and 5 can be combined easily.
Oh, and I totally had the group skip the first 4 measures. Classic big band doesn’t need an intro. Just go for it!
If you have any assignment issues you want help with, send me an email at Handbellbrothers@gmail.com. Maybe I’ll feature your question in a future post.