bells Speaking of doing things badly, I tried my hand at the bell choir yesterday.

Bell choir practice begins around 6:00, and I have always been at the store until at least 6:00 before. Now, I start early in the morning and finish when my boys get home from school, so I made dinner early and sallied over to the church to see how much fun it might be.

I should say that there is a grave need for bell ringers at the church. I like listening to bell choirs, but it is not something I have ever actually wanted to learn to do. Still, if I can do it, I will. I don’t intend to teach Sunday School next year, so this can take the place of that service.

Handbells are not like any other instrument (I could be wrong there. It might be like playing the triangle). You have one or two notes to play. So, rather than playing the different notes as they appear in the music, you watch the music till your note comes up and ring it. So, if you had the beginning note for “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” you would play it three times at the beginning and then be quiet until it came back again during the “merrily”s.

Pitch is not an issue.

Counting is.

Playing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” would be a sensible thing to do on a first venture into bell-ringing. What I did was to play B6 and C7 in “Variations on Kingsfold.”

The director gave me some gloves and showed me how to make a circle in the air with the bell. I was able to get some feeble sound more than half the time. Then he asked me whether I could read the whole treble clef.

“You know how badly I read music,” I reminded him. But I didn’t get what he was asking.

Once we started playing, I saw what he meant. My notes were way above the staff. I can recognize something like a C or an A in the staff every time, but the bells I had were up in the imaginary, invisible part of the staff where, as an alto, I simply never go.

I intend to circle all my notes. I was able to foresee the B6 in Kingsfold, actually, much of the time, by mentally singing the piece and ringing the B6 at the point where I would have sung a B. However, that “variations” part means that you cannot rely on knowing the basic melody.

In fact, I got lost repeatedly, finding myself for example in measure 49 when I should have been in 45. Part of this is that, as a singer, I am accustomed to ignoring the bottom staff. That is the piano or whatever, and we get to the end of our part in the treble clef and turn the page and there is our next bit. With the bells, that bottom staff tolls for thee. Or, rather, I was supposed to toll for it.

There is also the whole instrumentalness of the thing. As instruments go, bells are easy, though the director was showing me some fancy stuff I can work up to — using the Doppler effect to advantage, flashy damping, stuff I obviously can’t be expected to do until I can get the blasted thing to make a sound every time I make a circle in the air.

But when your voice is your instrument, there is no time lag between when you envision the sound, as it were, and when you produce it. With the bell, if you don’t have your hands in the right spot, you can be just that quarter beat late that makes all the difference, just because of the time it takes to get to the right place. In fact, I spent the rehearsal playing some of the time (because the bell didn’t always actually ring just because I moved my arm), at approximately the right time, and occasionally in the wrong place altogether.

“Do you work on Saturdays?” the director asked me. This Saturday, yes, I said; I am doing a workshop.

“You wouldn’t allow me to play these in public anyway,” I pointed out. “In three or four months, maybe.”

“Next Sunday,” he said.

I have brought the music home for circling purposes. How can one practice one’s music at home, though, with handbells? I don’t have any bells at home, of course, but I am thinking that I could just sing the notes (in my own octave, of course) or perhaps tap on a glass with a spoon or something. Do I sit in silence imagining the music until my note is up? That is what you do when you play with a bell choir, after all. Do I play the treble on the piano (as if I could) and shriek “Bong!” each time one of my notes comes up?

Often, in listening to amateur bell choirs, I have thought that they sound better when you don’t know the piece. When there is a familiar or a predictable melody, your mind is sort of making a channel for the tune to glide through, and you notice when they are off a little bit. A total cacophony sounds pretty in bells, though, so if you don’t know the tune, you can enjoy just about everything.

It all adds to the elasticity of the brain.