Nuancing the Handbell Mallet - by Dan Moore

Mallets are, in my opinion, the most misunderstood and misused piece of equipment in handbell ringers' bag of tricks. Most often the mallet is at the bottom of the director's priority of musical options and often substituted for the pluck (PL), thumb damp (TD) or other techniques designed to produce a stopped sound. Following is an attempt to demystify the mallet and a few suggestions for the ringer's approach to this unique and interesting bit of handbell curiosity.

Stopped Sounds
First, why use mallets? Does the composer or arranger specify mallets or has that decision been left to the director? When composers or arrangers indicate that stopped sounds can be played with any of the stopped techniques it may seem they are avoiding a decision. However, giving options on techniques allows for those who don't own mallets or for different skill levels. Although subtle, each stopped technique renders a specific sound and places different demands on the ringer (as most ringers are quick to point out.) If the composer/arranger doesn't specify one technique over another, then the director's choice must be made based on musicality, technical abilities of the ringers, and a willingness to rehearse the passage(s) until clean and accurate. (I'll cover mallets used on a suspended handbell and the "mallet lift" technique in a future issue.)

Of course, there are always instances when the composer or arranger specifies "mallets" and I feel that instruction should be honored. When the composer/arranger has a specific sound in mind using any other stopped technique is not an option for me. I feel the proper recourse is to teach the technique to the ringers or to choose another piece.

Symbols and Notation
The standard notation symbol for the use of mallets (either with the casting suspended or on the padded table) is the "+". The dot "." added to the "+" indicates the use of mallets on bells resting on a padded table, whereas the absence of a dot "." indicates mallets on suspended bells. The key here is to read the fine print in the footnotes or special instructions. Here are three examples.

 

Acclamation on Azmon; Glaser/Sherman. Hope Publishing HP2395; p. 4. 
Here, the arranger clearly gives choices for the 'staccato' notes. (Click thumbnail to the left to see the preview.)
© 1988 Agape (a div. of Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188). All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth. Gardner/Prins.
From The Top Publishing, 20304; p. 1. 
In this arrangement, there are clear choices as presented in the page 1 footnote. (Click thumbnail to the left to see the preview.)

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Blessed Assurance. Knapp/McKechnie. Hope Publishing 1388; p 2.
The arranger has clearly designated the symbol and an explanation of the technique. Beginning in measure 19, the upper bells use a different mallet technique: striking a suspended casting with a mallet. (Click thumbnail to the left to see the preview.)
© 1989 Agape (a div. of Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188). All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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Balance and Mallets
Secondly, like other stopped techniques, mallets are often played too loudly. The dynamic range of mallets - like other stopped techniques - is less than a rung handbell; trying for too much volume is most often unmusical. The use of mallets is to create a specific handbell sound and striving for anything more than mf leads to problems (more about that in a moment). Encouraging rhythmic accuracy and correct technique trumps dynamics every time. Mallets on bells played with ensemble rhythmic accuracy will provide all the power needed to give life to accompaniment and melodic passages.

Finally, here are a few simple mallet rules:

  1. Never play a malleted passage more than a conservative mf
  2. Never swing the mallet from the elbow; keep the mallet head positioned no more than three inches directly above where it is going to impact the casting (which should be toward the rim or lip, not at the casting's mid-point or toward the handle). Use the proper grip: palm of the hand facing the table, and back of the hand toward the ceiling, keep elbows in gentle contact with the torso to minimize the tendency to imitate "Whack-a-mole". (See Video #1, Basic Mallet Grip and Stroke) 
  3. The closer the mallet is to the casting at the beginning of the stroke, the better chance the ringer has of minimizing or avoiding mishaps. There are several dangerous situations arising from a mallet stroke which begins too high: (1) striking too far from the lip (2) missing the casting completely (3) inadvertently striking the casting with the mallet shaft (4) rhythmic inaccuracy 
  4. Always use the mallet to lightly tap casting; the idea is to draw the sound from the bell, not hammer it in. Some choirs use slightly more firm mallets on the bass (3's) bells to get a brighter attack, but there is a potential for damaging the casting by using the wrong mallets. (Note: use only the mallet range recommended by the instrument manufacturer.) 
  5. Use two mallets. Trying to play even a simple rhythmic passage with a single mallet can produce inaccurate results. Mallets should be used alternating left/right wherever possible. Ringers should always choreograph and mark where they pick up and put down their mallets, and which hand is used to begin a pattern.

Mallet Roll Technique
Uneven mallet roll? If the answer is "yes," get out the metronome and ask your ringers to practice the mallet roll in triplets to a quarter note beat, alternating left and right mallets but placing small accents on the first strike of the triplets (see videos 2,3 & 4): LRL RLR LRL RLR LRL etc.

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Video Example #1 (click image to view)

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Video Example #2 (click image to view)

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Video Example #3 (click image to view)

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Video Example #4 (click image to view)

Mallets can add musical and physical excitement to your program when used properly and correct mallet techniques should be in every handbell ringer's toolkit. It is important (as with all techniques) to provide our ringers with technique skills and knowledge before they find them in their music. Please don't shy away from pieces that use mallets! If you encourage and teach your ringers to mallet properly; it will enhance their musical experience. In a future issue, I plan to discuss other mallet techniques including the mallet-lift technique and mallets on suspended handbells. Meanwhile: 'tap', not 'whack', and do it gently!

Learn more about mallets here:

About the Author:
Daniel K. Moore retired from teaching and directing the Concert Handbell Ringers of the Wheeler School in Providence, RI after 37 years. His auditioned ensembles appeared frequently on television, performed opening concerts at national and regional handbell festivals, recorded with the Empire Brass, Ed Sweeney, and on several solo CD's.

Dan was a charter member of the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers' committee to promote handbells in education and subsequently served regional and national AGEHR boards in many capacities, most recently as Chair of AGEHR's second Certification Program. Dan continues to be a frequent clinician, organizer and conductor at handbell ringing events and his comprehensive handbell textbook, "Ringing RIGHT! From the Beginning", a valuable resource for ringers and directors alike, is published by HMA/AGEHR

Dan is also the New England regional representative for Malmark Bellcraftsmen and serves the Area 1 Board as Secretary.


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