Handbell Shelley Technique: Mastering the Art for Performance Success

handbell ringer practicing the shelley technique

Handbell ringing is a unique and captivating form of music that has been captivating audiences for centuries. One of the important techniques in handbell ringing is the Shelley Technique. This method allows ringers to play two or more bells simultaneously, enriching the overall sound and adding depth to the performance.

Shelley Technique involves holding multiple handbells in one hand, with the handles in the same direction, and ringing them together while maintaining good damping and clean playing1. Often used with upper octave notes, this approach enhances the versatility of handbell ensembles by providing a wider range of pitches and harmonies.

By mastering this skillful technique, handbell ringers can further explore and expand their creative range while captivating audiences with intricate performances. As handbell ensembles continue to evolve, so does the need to embrace and incorporate a variety of ringing techniques, making the Shelley Technique an essential part of any handbell musician’s repertoire.

History of Handbell Shelley Technique

Origin of Shelley Technique

The Shelley Technique is a specific technique used in ringing handbells. It originated as a way for handbell ringers to play multiple bells in one hand simultaneously. The technique involves holding two handbells in one hand, with their handles overlapping, allowing the ringer to strike both bells at once with precision and ease. This technique provided handbell ensembles with more versatility in their performances and allowed them to explore new creative possibilities.

Evolution over Time

Over the years, the Shelley Technique has evolved and been refined through practice and innovation. It has become an essential component of handbell ringing, offering a unique and distinct sound that sets it apart from other handbell techniques.

In modern handbell ensembles, the Shelley Technique is often used in combination with other ringing methods, such as four-in-hand and swing, to create complex and dynamic arrangements. Furthermore, advancements in handbell construction, such as the introduction of plastic handles, have made it easier for ringers to grasp and maneuver multiple bells efficiently.

As handbell music continues to develop and diversify, the Shelley Technique remains an indispensable tool for handbell ringers, contributing to the art form’s rich history and ongoing growth.

Fundamentals of Shelley Ringing


The Shelley Technique is a popular handbell ringing method that involves holding two handbells in one hand, enabling ringers to play complex melodies with fewer people. The primary skill in this technique is called Four-in-Hand, where each ringer holds two bells in one hand, with one clapper resting against the palm and the other directed away from the hand. This setup allows ringers to control the desired bell by adjusting the movement of their fingers and wrist. To practice Four-in-Hand, ringers should start with small bells and gradually progress to larger ones as they become more comfortable with the technique.

Notes and Notation

Handbell music is written in standard musical notation, but with specific symbols and markings for handbell techniques, such as Shelley. In this method, the notes for the two bells held in one hand are placed close together on the staff, indicating that they should be played using the Shelley Technique. When playing, the ringer must pay close attention to these notations to ensure the correct bells are played at the appropriate time.

In addition to the standard note values in music notation, handbell music also includes specific symbols for various handbell techniques. For example, a small “+” symbol above a note indicates that the bell should be rung using the Shelley Technique. Moreover, markings like “+” for ringing and “x” for damping are essential for both clarity and execution in handbell performances.

It is crucial for ringers to understand the unique aspects of handbell notation, as it provides the necessary information for them to execute the required techniques, such as the Shelley Technique, accurately and effectively. By mastering the fundamentals of the Handbell Shelley Technique, ringers can enhance their handbell performances and contribute to the overall musical experience.

Articulation and Damping in Handbell Shelley Technique

Swing and Vertical Position

In the Shelley technique, sound articulation is greatly impacted by the swing and vertical position of the handbell ringer’s wrist and arm. The ringer should maintain a controlled and fluid movement to ensure a clean and precise sound. The vertical position of the handbell plays a large role in the sound quality, as the distance between the bell and the foam pad damping surface affects the speed and intensity of the strike. Proper wrist and arm position helps maintain an even and consistent meter throughout the performance.

Suspended Mallet

The use of suspended mallets can help create unique articulations in the Shelley ringing technique. This advanced technique involves holding a mallet in the same hand as the handbell, adding an additional layer of sound to the performance. The suspended mallet technique is achieved by holding the mallet under two fingers, with the handle pointing downward. This allows the ringer to strike the handbell and produce different timbres and sound effects while still following the traditional Shelley ringing form.

Normal Ringing

When implementing the Shelley technique in normal ringing, it’s crucial to pay attention to articulation and damping. Proper damping allows the ringer to control the duration or resonance of the bell, thus improving the clarity and precision of the overall sound. Damping is often achieved by using the free fingers or palm of the hand to touch the rim of the bell, effectively stopping the vibrations and creating a clear, articulated sound.

In summary, the Shelley technique’s various aspects, such as swing and vertical position, suspended mallet, and normal ringing, serve to enhance the handbell performance’s sound, articulation, and meter. By mastering these techniques and implementing them appropriately, handbell ringers can achieve a more dynamic, controlled, and precise sound.

Advanced Aspects of Handbell Shelley Technique

Bass Clef and Clapper Adjustments

The Shelley Technique allows handbell ringers to play multiple bells in one hand simultaneously, which can be particularly useful when playing bass clef notes. To achieve the best sound quality, proper clapper adjustments are crucial. Ringers should ensure that clappers are securely tightened and aligned with the bell’s casting, allowing for accurate and consistent ringing.

For bass clef handbells, ringers might need to use different grip techniques or adjust the bells to accommodate the larger size and weight, ensuring optimal sound while maintaining control and comfort.

Accidentals and Complex Rhythms

Incorporating accidentals and complex rhythms into handbell compositions can significantly enhance the performance’s musicality. When utilizing the Shelley Technique, ringers must be aware of how to coordinate different bell changes to navigate these complexities effectively.

  • Accidentals: Ringers should be comfortable switching bells mid-performance to accommodate sharps or flats that may not be present in their initial bell setup.

  • Complex Rhythms: Mastering complex rhythms while using the Shelley Technique requires both precision and coordination, as the ringer must navigate two or more bells at the same time without compromising the intended rhythm.

Table Damp and Brush Damp

Two handbell damping techniques that can add texture and variety to a performance when using the Shelley Technique are the Table Damp, Thumb Damp, and the Brush Damp.

  • Table Damp: This technique involves pressing a ringing bell directly onto the padded table, thus immediately stopping its vibration. It is often used in conjunction with the Shelley Technique to create staccato effects or emphasize individual notes within a chord.

  • Brush Damp: The Brush Damp technique involves lightly brushing the bell’s vibrating surface against the ringers’ clothing or a portion of their body. This action dampens the sound without completely stopping the vibrations, resulting in a softer, muted tone. The Brush Damp technique can be utilized while employing the Shelley Technique to create subtle dynamic contrasts and unique sounds within a performance.

Learning Resources and Organizations

Workshops and Online Courses

There are numerous workshops and online courses available for those looking to improve their handbell skills and learn about the Shelley technique. One example is the Handbell Musicians of America National Seminar, which offers classes on techniques ranging from treble to bass, along with musicality, percussion, and rhythm. Attending these workshops and courses allows both beginners and experienced handbell players to refine their skills and learn new techniques.


Joining a handbell association is another excellent option for individuals looking to improve their skills, network with other handbell musicians, and stay up-to-date on the latest techniques and developments. A prominent association in the United States is the Handbell Musicians of America. This organization not only provides information about handbells, but also offers support and resources for musicians, directors, and handbell enthusiasts alike. By participating in these associations, members can take advantage of the collective knowledge and experience of their peers to enhance their understanding of the Shelley technique and other aspects of handbell ringing.

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