Ringing handbells - an overview

Handbell ringing is different

Handbell ringing is easier than you may think. It is fun in its own right and much more mentally stimulating than tower bells. On handbells there obviously isn’t 70ft of rope to worry about and the bells weigh considerably less than the ‘small car’ we regularly seek to control swinging above our heads. The downside is you do have to ring two bells at a time.

Ringing methods on handbells is different to ringing them on tower bells. You don't start by ringing two blue lines, instead you learn how to ring by position, knowing where the first bell of your pair is going to strike and then ringing the second relative to it. So, however experienced you might be as a tower bell ringer you might be, you start by learning the relative positions (of which there are three when ringing 6 bells, four when ringing 8 bells etc.) You practise these on your own and with others until they are automatic. You do this by ringing Plain Hunt on different pairs.

You then progress to start ringing methods. Most handbell ringers use a combination of places, grid, lines, and structure (based on where the treble is or what the first bell of their pair is doing) to ring methods and these different approaches need to be learnt and practised. So, you'll be introduced to place notation and place notation blocks. Again, may sound scary, but it's not if you add one block at a time, learning the effect of different blocks in small, easily achievable steps.

You never change which of the three positions you're ringing unless there is a block change and even then it's not necessarily true that you change positions even then. So you're starting to ring by structure, you ring one of the three positions (which are automatic now) and only even think about changing position when the a new block is introduced, such as the lead end (x12) block in Plain Bob. You only change position if your bells do different things during this block:

  • If both of your bells dodge – you stay in the same position
  • If both of your bells make a place – you stay in the same position
  • If both of your bells hunt – you stay in the same position
  • If one of your bells dodges, makes a place or hunts whilst the other does something else – you change position

How do you know what this new position is? Well, you note where you bells strike in the change and relate those two places to one of the positions and ring this new position going forward. There is no ambiguity – each position has unique pairs of places. So if you strike in third and fifth place, you can only be in coursing position, and if you strike in seconds and fifths place you must be in opposites position.

Learning the Ropes Handbell Scheme

The rest of these resources will cover the different ringing positions and then guide you through method ringing on handbells by applying the above rules. The Learning the Ropes Handbell scheme is a progressive scheme that allows you to develop your handbell scheme in small, easily-achievable steps. Your job is to learn and then practise these steps so that ringing them becomes automatic before moving on to the next step.

An important part of the scheme is to learn how to call on handbells. The handbells scheme emphasises calling and conducting more than the equivalent tower bell scheme. There are two reasons for this. First, with half the number of people ringing in a handbell touch, it is mathematically necessary to train more conductors. Secondly, handbell bands often develop and grow in isolation and with the need to ring quarter peals to embed methods, handbell conductors must also be developed in isolation.

Getting started

These resources will take you step-by-step through ringing handbells which you can use as a learner, or a teacher or as a band.

If you're interested in learning or finding out if handbell ringing is right for you:

  • Practise on your own using Abel, Mobel or other simulator software.
  • Use Ringing Room or Handbell Stadium.
  • Get in touch with ART who can assign you a handbell ringing teacher.
  • Some Ringing Centres and courses can offer tuition or give you a taster.

A good start would be to listen to this webinar.