Assignment Challenge: Sail Away

Posted By Derek Nance on May 12, 2016 |


This odd pop song by Enya doesn’t initially seem like something handbells can play well, but with Kevin McChesney’s arrangement your group can sound like an Irish pop star. The arrangement layers thick chords of bells and chimes on top of a driving malletted bass line to recreate the ethereal sound of Enya. In this assignment challenge we are going to break down how I assigned this piece for 14 ringers playing 5 octaves of bells and 2 octaves of chimes. If you want to preview the music, hear a recording, or purchase the piece, check out the publisher’s website.

Measures 10 and 11 from “Sail Away” arranged by Kevin McChesney.

The first thing you’ll notice is that the song has a pretty traditional pop structure in three parts. The melody is in the stems up treble bells, the accompaniment is in the stems down treble and stems up bass, and the rhythm section is in the stems down bass. Melody and accompaniment parts are rung for most of the piece, while the rhythm line is played with mallets. The rhythm line is the same 2 measure pattern repeated in octaves, which can be played by two ringers, one malletting C3-G3 and the other C4-G4. There’s one small catch, however. If you look closely at the two measure pattern, G4 rings in the first measure and is malletted in the second measure. To keep the bass line smooth and get the rung note played precisely, I have my G4/A4 ringer ring the G4 in the first measure and get the bell to the table fast enough for the bass ringer to mallet it in the second measure (belly damping works best for this). The pattern repeats over and over again in this piece, so by the end of the first run through those two ringers should have that movement perfected.

A quick note about mallets: When playing pop music like this I prefer to stay away from the big round bass mallets. To make this piece groove, you really need to hear every bass strike with only a minimal amount of resonance afterwards. I would recommend using a mallet one step harder than you normally use. For instance, if you’re using the new Schulmerich mallets (my preference) use the black bass mallets. If you’re using Malmark mallets, try the yellow or navy blue mallets. Or if you’re using TruTimbre try the dark and light green mallets. As long as you’re using proper mallet technique and striking the bell in the same place as the clapper you’re not going to damage the bells. (Disclaimer: My opinions, not those supported by the manufacturers.)

“Sail Away” first verse.

When you get to the first verse, the cords change but the pattern remains the same. My original thought when I was assigning the piece was to have my two bass ringers continue to mallet the entire bass line and bump the B4/C5 and G4/A4 ringers out of position, but logistically that turned out to not work well. The B4/C5 ringer could handle the malletting and ringing just fine, so they took care of those two notes. The bass ringers continued malletting everything else. This leaves the G4/A4 ringers with nothing to do, but that will change the next time the verse comes around.

The second chorus in “Sail Away”

The second time the chorus comes around another staff appears on the score. To create the thick, layered sound of Enya, McChesney added an additional chime part. Without the chime part the piece becomes incredibly repetitive, so they can’t be left out. However, this also creates a complicated assignment challenge. There’s no way the corresponding bell positions can play the seven chimes written and get their bells in rhythm. Also, we only have the 14 people in our bell group to work with, so I can’t bring in additional ringers. Immediately I began to look for people I can cut out of the bell part.

The solution is all the bass ringers saved from the malletted bass line. In a standard handbell assignment with 14 ringers and 5 octaves, there are typically 3 ringers from C3-B3, then a ringer at C4/D4, and a ringer at E4/F4. With the assignments we laid out at the beginning of the piece, only one ringer is needed from C3-B3, and the E4/F4 ringer isn’t needed at all. This saves 3 people from the bass section, people who conveniently can play the seven chimes required in the additional chime part. Using a simple shelly for the one extra chime, the three ringers have no issue covering the chime part.

The second verse in “Sail Away”

When verse two comes in, the chords change like the first time. While the bell ringers can handle this fine, the chime trio suddenly has lots more chimes to handle. Plus, in this verse the chime part doesn’t repeat the same two bar pattern as before. More hands are needed to play the chimes. Luckily, we happen to have one extra ringer.

The first time the verse came along, the assignment left the G4/A4 ringer with nothing to do. Since the bass parts in the verses are identical, we are still left with nothing for that ringer to do. The G4/A4 position ends up being the perfect position to play the C6 and D6 chimes. Removing those two chimes allows the chime trio to easily grab all the remaining chimes in that verse. But, before we get to play the chorus again, we first have to cross the bridge.

The bridge to “Sail Away”

As with every great alternate assignment there has to be one section to make everything fall apart, and with “Sail Away” that section is the bridge. While it’s not very complicated, there are just enough rung bass notes that the two lone remaining bass ringers can’t quite get all of them (trust me, I’ve watched them try). As amusing as it is to watch, the bass ringers really need extra hands to get all those notes crisply in time. Without any other rhythm going on, those whole notes and half notes have to be exactly right for the piece to work.

Lucky for us however, the chime trio isn’t needed for the bridge. By having them set up at the end of the bass table, they can lend a hand to the bass ringers without traveling far. There will have to be an intense negotiation session between the chime ringers and bass ringers, but eventually a truce will be negotiated and bells will be shared. The best solution we found is for the chime trio to play the E4, F#4, A3, E3, and occasionally C3 bells. In fact, the chime trio can keep the E4, F#4, A3, and E3 bells the entire piece.

After the bridge, it’s smooth sailing (pun intended) all the way to the end of the piece. The chorus repeats a couple times, then the piece ends with a soft chime echo of the main theme. All together it’s a great piece of music and a definite crowd pleaser.

To recap, here is a list of every ringer and what instruments they have, starting from the bass end of the table. Note that the ringer number is arbitrary and not related to the ringer number assigning system many groups use.

  • Ringer 1: (Chime Trio) C5, D5, Eb5 chimes; A3, E3 bells
  • Ringer 2: (Chime Trio) E5, F5, A5, Bb5 chimes; E4, F#4 bells
  • Ringer 3: (Chime Trio) G5, B5, G4 chimes
  • Ringer 4: C3, D3, F3, G3, Bb3, C4 bells
  • Ringer 5: C4, D4, F4, G4 bells
  • Ringer 6: G4, A4 bells; C6, D6 chimes
  • Ringer 7: Bb4, B4, C5 bells
  • Ringer 8: D5, Eb5, E5 bells
  • Ringer 9: F5, F#5, G5 bells
  • Ringer 10: A5, Bb5, B5 bells
  • Ringer 11: C6, D6, D7 bells
  • Ringer 12: Eb6, E6, F6, F#6, Eb7, E7, F7 bells
  • Ringer 13: G6, A6, G7, A7 bells
  • Ringer 14: Bb6, B6, C7, B7, C8 bells

If you have played this piece, let me know in the comments what assignments you used. Also, let me know what piece you’d like me to try and assign next time.