How to impress your friends

It all came about through Covid. A friend’s 60th birthday. Her daughter’s appeal for a special message that she could compile into a video montage for her mum in the absence of real people at her birthday celebrations.

Many years ago when I learnt to ring, I was fortunate to have a tower captain who not only was a good ringer but he rang handbells to changes, and taught us. He was extremely musical and led the Spalding Parish Church Handbell Ringers, so we joined that too. He arranged the music himself and we performed in competitions and concerts. He also played the carillon in the recently restored town hall. (Ron Noon – if you’re looking down on me now, I want you to know how much I owe you, and thank you.)

We rang tunes with handbells ‘four-in-hand’. You hold two bells in each hand but at different angles, so that the clappers swing at right angles to each other. When you move the hand downwards the lower (dominant) bell rings, when you swing your hand inwards the other bell rings. The clappers swinging along different axes means that only one bell will sound at a time. You interlock the handbells with one strap inserted through the other so that you can grip them both firmly.

Back to my friend’s 60th birthday – the obvious thing was to ring her a tribute. I should explain – I ring handbells to changes regularly and so does my partner, so we do have a set of 12 handbells in the house. I know how tune ringing on handbells works, so we could ring 8 bells between us. I was sure I could teach Gareth to ring 4 in hand. Does ‘Happy Birthday’ fit within the range of 8 bells? A bit of humming and plonking on the piano told me that it did. I then did a google search for Happy Birthday on handbells. What amazing diversity – handbell choirs of 30 people ringing wonderful arrangements off the table. But one ray of hope for our modest venture – ‘Larry and Carla’ on YouTube ringing a handbell duet. What they managed to do with 8 bells! You can listen to them and download their music at these sites (Happy Birthday is free, other music is payable):

Larry and Carla’s music had way too many notes in it (though they look like they’re having fun, don’t they?) I took their music and wrote it out again missing out some of the twiddly bits. Then I worked out what the bell numbers were that matched each note, with the lowest note/bell assigned to bell number 8. I wrote the music out again using numbers, which is a common way of displaying music for handbells: the numbers below the horizontal line were for me to play, and those above were for Gareth. And as we went on, I crossed out a few more notes that I decided were superfluous to requirements (i.e. too difficult to ring). The results were quite splendid. We were thrilled with ourselves and my smile was almost as wide as Carla’s (see above). Sharyn (the birthday girl) was amazed and astonished. We had never had a reception like that to our Sunday morning ringing!

So do give ringing handbell tunes a go. It was ages since I’d done it and I’d forgotten what fun it was. It was enlightening to teach my rather stubborn partner to ring the top four bells - and the feedback was that I wasn’t very good at that! If you can get hold of a set of bells, try some tunes with each person in your family ringing one in each hand.

At the left is one which will need bells 2 to 12 of a set of 12 bells. If you haven’t got proper handbells you can buy little coloured handbells and ring 'Silent Night' for handbells quite cheaply (search ‘coloured handbells’) or try boomwhackers!


Happy Birthday – an 8-bell duet
performed by Larry and Carla


Silent Night written out for handbells

Lesley Boyle, Cambridgeshire