Sometimes I volunteer for a job not knowing the amount of work it will entail. That happened recently, after I joined the hand bell choir at church.
My first reply when my friend Joanne asked me to join the bell choir was no because I fiercely protect my spare time for my string music, but I relented the next day after being convinced that I would be good at playing bells, and I joined in October. I had to learn the different manners of playing bells — ring, strike, or damp on a cushion — and I had to read bass clef. I read treble clef like reading the English language, but bass clef takes thought — I know it but not automatically. (For you non-musicians, the treble clef is the right hand on the piano and the bass is the left. Violins and mandolins and other high instruments play treble, and cellos play bass, most of the time.)
It helped that the bell choir director marked the notes on the pages for each bell and I had only three bells to play. The lowest bell was a c an octave below middle c, and besides that I played c sharp and d. After a few weeks, though, I got comfortable and began to ask for more bells because I had long stretches with nothing to do, and I added three lower bells, the biggest a C below c that requires two hands for a normal person. (The majuscule C and minuscule c indicate their place on the staff. A staff is the collection of five parallel lines that serve as note-bearers).
Getting even more comfortable with the music and the members of the choir, I had the bright idea to arrange my tune “The Goat in the Cold” (GITC hereafter) for hand bells. The director enthusiastically said yea, and I borrowed some music from the hand bell library to guide me in bell music writing. I also copied a sheet that lists the position of bell notes on the staffs.
When I composed GITC in December 2004 I wrote only the melody line and the chords, common practice in traditional music, the burden (and joy) of arranging the tune falling upon the performer. Singers of popular music call these lead sheets. The person playing the chords thus has great leeway because no detailed part is transcribed. Later I wrote a harmony part when we began playing the tune at dances.
When I made a rough recording of GITC I played arpeggios, or arpeggi, on octave mandolin and mandola. (OK, you nonmusicians, an arpeggio is a chord whose notes are played individually in close succession rather than all at once. The term comes from the Italian “arpa” for harp, and arpeggi work quite well on mandolins.) Transcribing those arpeggi is where the trouble started.
Recall that I had transcribed no detailed accompaniment part, only the chord names, which is all I needed to play arpeggi on mandolins. But for bells it is a different matter because I must notate every single note of every arpeggio. Recall also that I am only passingly comfortable with bass clef and the arpeggi for the bell arrangement must be written in that clef. Even though the octave mandolin (OM) hovers in the range of the bass clef, I read treble clef when playing it. What does all this mean?
It meant I had to slowly play every arpeggio on OM and translate those notes that were treble clef in my brain to bass clef on paper. I had to adjust those notes to the range of bells because the OM’s higher notes coincide with the melody at times, which is OK when violin is playing melody and OM arpeggi, but with bells certain bells must be reserved for the upper melody and harmony and others for the lower arpeggi, so I had to adjust the arpeggi parts down a bit. All that, and Christmas music commitments, stopped me in my tracks, or my staffs, for a week or two, but finally this week I returned to the task, and I wrote the mandola arpeggio part, which is slightly higher than the OM part and must harmonize with that part yet not tread on the melody and harmony parts. Does your brain hurt yet?
As of this writing I have those parts done, and next I will combine them on paper with the already existent melody and harmony parts, and I’ll finish with some frills on the high bells that only goats can hear. It is a great deal of work, but I don’t regret it. I call it my “Bellwether Arrangement,” but you must look up that term on your own. I’m out of space.