Handbell Olympics in Arkansas

Handbell Olympics in Arkansas

One year, in another church and another location, I dreamed of creating a fun end-of-the-year activity for my children’s bell choir. The rehearsal period wasn’t long enough to take them somewhere, so it needed to be something which could be done where we rehearsed. My teaching background made me curious about what they had learned and retained from their ringing experiences. Thinking through several options, I settled on the idea of doing challenges related to music reading and handbell ringing and began creating the necessary flashcards, games, etc. to keep one kids’ handbell choir busy for the period. I called it Handbell Olympics and told the children they were in for a fun time.

And they did have fun while they exhibited a good bit of knowledge and ability. But there was one side effect that I hadn’t even thought of: the “winners” were elated, and the “losers” went home in actual tears. I put all the games and flashcards in a manila envelope, filed them and never tried it again.

Fast forward to the Arkansas Chapter of AGEHR (yes, that’s what it was called at that time). At a meeting in 2009, our State AGEHR Board members wanted to develop a children’s ringing event. We had done young ringers festivals in the past, but they seemed to have run their course. I suggested the Handbell Olympics idea, gave a brief description of its benefits and pitfalls, and the Board liked the idea.

Plans began right away. Finding the right time of year was troublesome: I think we scheduled and rescheduled the first one three times before it actually happened. The children loved it, and we have had Handbell Olympics every year since then. Both children’s handbell and handchime choirs (grades 3-6) are invited.

It basically consists of:

  • A Saturday, from approximately 9:30 AM (registration and set-up) to 3:00 PM (last event is the Procession, Concert, and Awards), which gives time for travel at both ends of the day. We’ve settled on the last Saturday of January, with the first Saturday in February as the snow date.
  • Two or three pieces of music.
  • Two to three rehearsals. The children basically have worked on the music; finishing touches are added that day.
  • Two “games” periods, for participation in games. Our games and games’ titles may change yearly, but here are some we have used: Rhythmic Ringing, Put Your Ears On, Know Your Stuff, and Ringing Relay. (see more detailed explanations below)
  • Lunch. We’ve found that almost all kids love pizza, along with some chewy vegetables, something to drink, and a few cookies.
  • Warmups. We start the day with a few warm-ups to help them focus.
  • Rhythms. A 15-minute class which helps everyone review their note and rest values. (Gotta get ready for that rhythm challenge!)
  • Procession, Concert, Awards. If your theme is Handbell Olympics, you need an Olympic procession. The ringers gather in an outside hall and come in together, randomly ringing their bells to a recording of the Olympic Fanfare. They ring their two pieces of music, each choir is recognized and each member of the choir receives a medal. The choir and director receive a framed certificate. Parents, family, and friends are invited for the concert. Some years we have had standing room only crowds!

Arkansas is blessed with talented, dedicated State Board members who willingly share the responsibilities. As a group they set the schedule, volunteer for leadership roles (clinician, leaders/planners of the games, lunch coordinator, host, and whatever else needs done). We print an official program for the day, and each ringer receives a t-shirt with our own Handbell Olympics logo and year on it. We follow the safe sanctuaries guidelines, so we have extra adults there. Many of them are willing to help out with the games or other on-the-spot needs.

The Games

We divide the children (grades 3-6) into smaller groups (using numbers, colors, shapes, animals, etc.), not necessarily by choirs, but always with at least one other person from their choir. We find that smaller groups encourage each child to participate, but put no child on the spot. Each game period is about 45 minutes long, with two games going on simultaneously and a switch time in the middle, so each game lasts about 20 minutes. The small groups are divided into two larger groups who then switch so that both groups play both games. The games focus on different skills and aspects of ringing handbells.

Rhythms: recognizing, ringing, creating. We’ve done it where they read rhythms already created, or they draw or design their own and then they must ring what they created. Using the notes of a chord make it more satisfying to the ear.

Listening: The children listen to short excerpts (8-12 measures) of music rung by the board members and adults who are present (oh, you mean the adults have to ring too?) The excerpts can be from the Handbell Olympics music, or other pieces (Level 1 or 2) or a combination of both. Include different time signatures. The children have printed copies of the excerpts, two different copies for each excerpt they hear. Each group must vote whether they heard excerpt A or B. We usually do six or seven examples. Another listening game is to give each team a set of a few bells (one for each person). Then they listen to the leader play pitches on another instrument, and echo it on the bells.

Identification: Identify music terms and symbols, staff names, ringing symbols, handbell parts, and other tidbits of information that a handbell or handchime ringer should know. We use flash cards, staff boards, handbells, or whatever fits the purpose. We’ve also used specially marked dice (notes and rests): they throw them and have to figure out how many beats are represented. Certain numbers grant certain rewards.

Ringing Relay: Not only must the participant know what to do in each challenge, he/she must do it in relay fashion with his/her team. This is a good way for them to demonstrate handbell techniques while doing something crazy (stand on one foot and thumb damp your bell three times; sing Mary had a Little Lamb while ringing a steady beat, etc.). Remember to keep the safety of the bells in mind.

Handbell Olympics does require a lot of planning, but we board members enjoy the day, probably as much as the children do. Each year we think of something we would like to try differently. No two events ever come out being the same. And best of all, we have children involved in ringing handbells and handchimes!

Evy Lamb, Past Chair
Arkansas HMA Chapter

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