Students teach their parents how to play handbells during the Sound Curiosity pilot program at Urbana Middle School.
Students teach their parents how to play handbells during the Sound Curiosity pilot program at Urbana Middle School. (Photo by JoAnne Geigner.)
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“It’s an unusual excitement at this time of year,” says Karen DeBauche, band director at Urbana Middle School. “Their last [band] concert was two weeks ago so we needed to do something different for the sixth and seventh grade bands.”

Different, in this case, was to put away the tubas, trumpets and timpani and replace them with 191 handbells and handchimes, leading to an in-school recital at the end of the school year. Most of the students had never played these new instruments.

“Playing them is really fun but really hard,” said one sixth grader in the end-of-class discussion.

“How many of you agree about playing the handbells and handchimes?” asked DeBauche.

All around students’ hands shoot into the air. Lots of grins, too.

“Giving these students a new instrument to learn was a great way to keep their focus,” says handbell music instructor Daniel M. Reck, who was invited by DeBauche to work with over 100 band students for two-and-a-half weeks in May.

“At a time of year when students always find it hard to concentrate, it was great to see all the kids focused on working together to make what was really shockingly lovely music.” said sixth grade parent, Amy Ando. “This event was yet another example of the greatness of the band teacher, Karen DeBauche, who used her connections to the community to make such an experience possible.”

“It was great to see all the kids focused on working together to make what was really shockingly lovely music.”

Amy Ando, parent of 6th grade student

Bronze handbells, often seen in churches or during the Christmas season, actually originated in England in the 16th century or so. They were used to practice playing the complicated mathematical patterns of notes heard in English bell towers. According to Reck, these patterns are called “changes.” The most famous is “Westminster Quarters,” often heard when clock towers ring out the quarter hours.

“They didn’t start playing songs and melodies as we think of them until the 1800s,” says Reck. “P.T. Barnum, of circus fame, was among the earliest users of handbells of handbells in the United States. It didn’t become popular to use handbells in religious contexts until the middle of the 20th century.”

The Urbana Middle School band students learned and performed three songs beyond the “Westminster Quarters.” Two were original concert-length music for handbells and the finale was “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”

On that last tune students demonstrated the differences between handbells and handchimes. While handbells have been around for centuries, handchimes are a recent invention based on the design of an oversized tuning fork. When students were asked what metal the handchimes are made from, they correctly shouted, “Aluminum!”

“Handbells and handchimes are an easy instrument to start learning,” said Reck at the end of the recital as he invited all the parents to come to the stage. After a minute-long tutorial from their daughters and sons, each parent learned the basic ringing technique.

Handbell music instructor Daniel M. Reck answers student questions during a solo demonstration he gave earlier during the handbell class. (Photo by Karen DeBauche.)
Handbell music instructor Daniel M. Reck answers student questions during a solo demonstration he gave earlier during the handbell class. (Photo by Karen DeBauche.)

During the last two weeks students worked to learn the complexities of reading handbell and handchime music, in which each musician sees everyone’s part instead of just their own. However, using specially marked lyrics for “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” parents were able to successfully perform the song themselves on the new instruments after just a few moments.

“It looked easy until they had us parents try it,” said Ando. “Then there was lots of laughter as the kids got to help their clueless parents attempt to do what they themselves had just done. I enjoyed having a silly, smiling moment with our son during this incredibly busy time of year.”

“Every one of your students knows enough now to join a handbell ensemble,” Reck told parents. “I’m very proud of them.”

After the recital, parents and students asked Reck and DeBauche for more information about continuing with handbells in the community.

Most of the handbells, handchimes and related accessories were lent to Urbana Middle School by forzandoArts.com, which is launching a non-profit community music and STEM education program called Sound Curiosity. Additional instruments and equipment were lent by St. Matthew Lutheran Church and Grace United Methodist Church, both in Urbana.

“Mr. Reck is a very talented handbell musician who’s been playing twenty years,” said DeBauche during the recital introduction. He has conducted ensembles and played solo literature in the United States, the Czech Republic, Austria, and France. He is Director of Digital Media for the Northwestern University Bands in Evanston, Ill., and studied music, conducting and composition at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.

“I hope that all of our students will continue playing handbells or handchimes,” says Reck. “At least, they will use all the counting, reading and listening skills they have practiced with us.”

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