Academic journal article Research and Issues in Music Education (RIME)

Experiences and Perceptions of Middle School Handbell Participants

Academic journal article Research and Issues in Music Education (RIME)

Experiences and Perceptions of Middle School Handbell Participants

Article excerpt


Handbell choirs are common music ensembles found in churches around the United States. While Westcott acknowledged the setting of churches as the most common venue for handbells, he stated "its real significance lies in its recognized value as an educational aid for the young. Perhaps greater use might be made of handbells in the school rather than the church setting" (1962, p. 115).

Pedagogy articles have advocated handbells as a useful instructional tool for a variety of age and experience levels and in many types of settings. Bunting (1980) and Faris (1978) stated that handbells can serve as valuable music learning tools for preschool students all the way to senior citizens, and can also be useful for instruction with special needs populations. Bunting added, "at the junior high level, handbells can be considered the near-perfect instrument" (1980, p. 49); handbells are always in tune (Faris, 1978), and sound good, even at the beginning of instruction (Bunting, 1980; Faris, 1978; Higgs, 1973; Westcott, 1962). Authors have also cited the non-musical benefits of handbell participation, such as social engagement and self-discipline (Durrick, 1994; Faris, 1978; Tyler, 1968).

Pedagogues have cited challenges with starting handbell choirs, such as cost (Faris, 1978; Perlmutter, 2012), and, at least in the early years, a lack of music (Westcott, 1962), although by 1978, Faris stated that this was no longer a major concern, and in 2012, Perlmutter documented an abundance of quality music. Faris (1978) indicated what is probably a major issue even several decades later--that being the lack of handbell pedagogy experience of teachers "since few teacher-training institutions offer handbell experiences to their students, music educators often find it difficult to get a program started" (p. 50).

While there are many older pedagogical articles that have highlighted the musical and non-musical benefits and challenges associated with participating in and starting a handbell choir, there are few systematic investigations of handbell choirs in the research literature. Durrick (1994) completed a handbell pedagogy project with older adults, noting informal evidence of well-being improvement by the participants. Rybak (1995) investigated the use of handbells in older adults' music experiences, finding that those with less developed musical skills may have a more difficult time achieving flow. Guebert (2014) described the extended techniques used by composers in contemporary handbell choir music.

Most recently, Thornton (2015) surveyed a convenience sample of 86 adult handbell festival participants, finding that most were female, between 45 and 64 years of age, were active handbell members in their chuches, and had participated in school music ensembles in their youth. The majority of participants had learned to play handbells in church, with very few learning about handbells in schools. As in Rohwer's (2010) study of church choir members, common participation motivations were musical, social, and spiritual.

There is a need for a current research study describing the use of handbell choirs with students in school settings. Since there are few handbell programs in the schools (Thornton, 2015), it could be useful to have a model for how handbell pedagogy could function as a school ensemble experience. Therefore, the purpose of the current study was to describe the process of music learning and the perceptions of members in a school-based middle school handbell setting.


The design of the current study was a single case study that represented one middle school handbell choir program as a bounded, contextual system; the focus of the case was specific to the exploration of the uniqueness of a handbell choir in the public schools (Yin, 2014). In order to get depth on the context of this one case as an unusual, important example of a specific type of setting, an intrinsic case model was chosen (Stake, 1995). …

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