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.

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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.

Crotales and Antique Cymbals

One of my favorite percussion instruments are the Crotales.  Crotales are tuned metal disks usually stuck with hard mallets (plastic or metal) that sound similar to a Glockenspiel.  Crotales will only ever have a 2-octave range (top two octaves of the piano).  Only rare experiments have extended the range beyond this.

In terms of sound, I tend to think of Crotales as having a more oboe-like sound while the Glockenspiel will have a more clarinet-like sound.  This has to do with the complex series of overtones produced on the Crotales.  Think of them as twinkling lights in the night sky.

Technique on the Crotales will be the slowest of all the mallet percussion instruments due to the shape of the discs.  Bowing the discs will give a pure, if not eerie sound that is highly effective.  Bowing technique is only for extremely slow passages (half and whole notes at most).  The ring time is the longest of any of the traditional mallet percussion instruments.

New Age demonstration of Crotales (bowed and struck)

Antique Cymbals

Antique Cymbals are the exact same instrument as Crotales only played in a completely different manner.  Like their name implies, pairs of them are struck together like cymbals.  These are some of the oldest pitched percussion instrument that we know of.  Berlioz remarks that several were found in Roman ruins (hence the name “antique”).  Famous examples of Antique Cymbals are found in “The Queen Mab Scherzo” from Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, and The Rite of Spring.

Queen Mab Scherzo