Signs of the chimes

17th November 2000 at 00:00
Malcolm Wilson shows how the handbell family can make an excellent introduction to music-making.

Ringing in the classroom with handbells, handchimes or Belleplates now contributes to the music provision of many primary schools. It is a superb method of incorporating the music education principles of Orff and Kodaly in the classroom. Ringing involves pupils in visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning - that is, seeing, hearing and actively doing. Unlike tuned percussion Orff-style instruments traditionally used in schools (such as glockenspiels and xylophones) the handbell family of instruments (handbells, handchimes and Belleplates) offers several advantages:

* pupils can focus more easily on music or a teacher while performing (the pupil does not have to worry about a beater missing a glockenspiel bar while their eyes are on the teacher) * because bellringing is a kinaesthetic activity pupils physically make and stop the sound and so note values and rests are easily taught. The child must make the physical action last the duration of the note value - the visual movements also make it attractive to pupils * the spirit of interdependence and teamwork is fostered as each pupil is essential to the whole * music reading is more easily graded according to ability as pupils can start with just one note and progressively take control of greater number of notes as the ability to read music improves * bellringing is a cost-effective form of music-making as one set can be used by a whole class at once (and it is suitable to be used at all stages of the primary school) * handbells can be used in tandem with singing or other instruments with ease - they complement the use of many other tuned and untuned percussion instruments available in schools.

Classroom ideas * Assembly accompaniment: where the school has regular whole-school assemblies each class takes turn to accompany a particular week's singing. They practise in class playing accompaniment chords displayed on the overhead projector above the song words. The chord number is marked in a different colour from the text.

Alternatively (and especially for younger children unable to read the text) the class teacher uses one hand to indicate the chord that is going to be played (for example, chords I, IV or V would be indicated by one, four or five fingers) and uses the other hand to bring in the players on the appropriate beat for that chord.

* Echo-ringing: repeating rhythms developed from topic-related, word-bank rhythms - the teacher claps or rings a simple rhythm while saying the words with the same syllable rhythm for the pupils to echo back (either all together as a class or perhaps in "chord" groups). At later stages the teacher introduces a new rhythm at the same time as pupils are ringing the echo of the previous rhythm.

* Listening to mystery tunes: the teacher points to pupils (each lined up in scale order) to make a familiar melody which the pupils have to identify.

Alternatively the letter names may be written on a chalkboard or chart and as the teacher points to each letter in turn pupils play the note they have regardless of octave.

* Music reading rhythms: rhythm cards with or without topic words in that rhythm may be held up by the teacher for pupils to respond by playing.

* Pentatonic patterns: in groups pupils make up patterns using the notes of a pentatonic scale (for example, G, A, B, D, E at all octaves). They can then be performed by each class group in turn, or all together, or in a set pattern. Later, pupils take turn to be conductors, deciding on the sequence of groups and cue signals.

* Ostinato patterns: making a musical piece by building up a developing pattern of notes into a complex sounding piece.

* Rhythmic walking and ringing: walking and ringing randomly to develop rhythm within a steady beat.

* Story musical motif patterns: individual pupils or small groups are given a pattern to play that might be suggested by a particular keyword in a story or poem, or simply cued by the narrator of the story or poem. At first the teacher would determine these patterns but pupils would later devise their own sound pattern for a particular word or phrase.

* Create sound effects: pupil improvisation on a theme (for example, space travel) where group experimentation leads to a sound picture that could accompany expressive movement by another group of pupils.

Ringing groups Extra-curricular performance-orientated ringing groups offer a more intensive opportunity to develop music-reading skills. Pupils read from traditional staff notation and may begin with one note each (using music that has basic rhythms and no key changes) progressing to being responsible for four notes each and reading from music that has more complex rhythms and requires changes of notes. Performance opportunities both within and outside school develop presentation skills for pupils performing in front of audiences. Pupils taking part in ringing groups can participate in the national Crescendo scheme (see box for website) and earn certificates and pin-badges as skills are learned and activities are completed.

Shieldhill primary school in Falkirk has certainly made its mark with Belleplates. As well as all teaching staff making use of the instruments to complement the music provision of the school in accompanying assemblies the school also has extra-curricular groups, which are performance orientated, catering for up to 80 pupils aged eight to 12. The groups are run under the direction of four members of teaching staff. They have performed for many audiences locally and have been the subject of a video for student music teacher, as well as featuring in local authority in-service sessions for teachers, and have been featured in a national Schools Success Stories Conference.

Shieldhill handbell ringers were selected to perform at a national event at Liverpool University, and have been recorded by BBC television. They have attracted international interest with visitors from Australia, Canada, the US and Norway coming to find out about them. They earned the school Scotland's first award from national charity Education Extra and were recognised for their excellence by their local authority, Falkirk Council, with a civic award. Information about how Belleplates can be used in primary schools can be found at a dedicated web page from the school's own website .

Malcolm C Wilson is senior teacher, Shieldhill Primary School, Falkirk, Central ScotlandWeb:


* Music resources

Busy Ringer Books 1 - 4 by Kirsty Mitchell - collections of teaching material with humorous titles specifically aimed at primary age children. Published by AGEHR.

Teaching Young Ringers by Carolynne Mathis - a photocopiable progression of materials to develop musical literacy using ringing instruments in the primary school. Published by AGEHR.

Clapper Classics - a collection of 41 arrangements by Callahan and Thomson of popular classical and traditional melodies, designed to keep all ringers busy and progressing in order of difficulty through the book. Published by Agape, Hope Aardvark Belleplate Basics - a collection of ideas by Sandra Winter particularly suitable for use with infants but also applicable throughout primary school age group. Published by Aardvark Music.

All can be ordered from: Whitechapel Music Shop 32-34 Whitechapel Road, London E1 1DY. Tel: 020 7247 8598.

Web: Belleplates 57 Orchard Way, London Road, Ashford, Middlesex TW15 3AU. Tel: 01784 255961. Web: Mayola Music, 205 High Street, Clapham Bedford MK41 6AJ. Tel: 01234 262474. E-mail:

* Web links

Ringing in the Primary Classroom www.shieldhill. - many ideas for using ringing instruments for teaching music in the primary classroom.

Handbell Ringers of Great Britain - details of Crescendo Award Scheme for primary pupils as they progress in their use of ringing instruments.

Ringing Music Online database has 6,000 published music titles arranged for Belleplates, handchimes or handbells.

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