Staff Bells

Staff Bells are one of the most underutilized percussion instruments in existence.  They are essentially suspended handbells stuck with mallets.  Staff Bells were originally used in the early 1900s as a novelty act in vaudville shows.  The Deagan Company (who worked to develop the Marimba, Vibraphone, and the unsuccessful Nabimba) marketed these for several years.  The only composer who seemed to latch onto them was Percy Grainger.  Grainger used them extensively in The Warriors, In a Nutshell Suite, and in the finale of Lincolnshire Posy.

If a suitable rack can be built, any set of handbells can be turned into Staff Bells easily.  Usually the clappers are removed from Staff Bells.  Depending on the size of the bell, the mallet can be hard rubber, plastic, or yarn/cord.  Hard mallets can damage the larger bells.  Soft mallets will not produce an audible sound on the small bells.  If a large range is expected, it is best to split the Staff Bells up among 2-3 players.  Grainger almost always uses 3.

Range is conceivably 7 octaves depending on the maker of handbells.  Schulmerich makes a range from C2 to C( (sounding an octave higher).  The C9 (really C10) is one of the highest musical instruments in existence an octave higher than the Piano’s highest note. Four to five octaves is the standard (C3-C7).

Demonstration of Staff Bells in preparation for Grainger’s The Warriors.

A rehearsal for Grainger’s Gumsucker’s March where you can see the whole percussion section including the Staff Bells.

Bell Plates

Bell Plates are one of the many attempts to recreate the sound of massive, deep church bells.  The result isn’t a perfect simulacrum, but they are an interesting and useful sound in and of themselves.

Depending on the maker, Bell Plates will come in many different sizes.  Chromatic sets are preferred.  I have seen them advertised in up to four-octave sets going down to C2 (the C below the bass clef).

The sound of Bell Plates will last a long time after they are struck (up to a minute or more).  Care should be taken to notate the exact duration of the ring.

Different mallets can be used from a rawhide Chimes beater, to a timpani stick, to a bass drum/gong beater, to yarn mallets.  Each will produce a strikingly different result.