When I first began my journey with Montessori, I was aware that there was a set of bells that were sometimes used, but my knowledge ended there. There was no mention of them in the manuals I was using nor did the school my children attended in the summer utilize them. Overall, they were a bit of a mystery.
Fast forward a few years and I had my first experience with a set of manuals that included the full lessons on the bells for the primary level (ages 3-6). I was thrilled and immediately marveled at the brilliance and simplicity.
If you are not familiar with the Montessori bells, they are a set of tuned bells on stands that can be struck with a mallet. A full set consists of 26 bells or 2 sets of 13 that include a chromatic scale from C to C.
What is the purpose of the bells?
The Montessori bells are primarily part of the sensorial area. Children are taught to properly carry and strike a bell, a task which helps strengthen the muscles needed for writing. The next step is to work on matching the tones. This critical steps allows the child to develop a sense of matching pitch. Initially, bells are matched 2-3 at a time, but eventually, the child will be able to both match and grade (place in order) the full set. Once a child can match well, they can begin to match tones with their voices through a series of games.
The Montessori bells are also useful for language development. Once a child is familiar with the bells, they will begin naming the notes of each bell, eventually moving from a written form to the actual notes on the staff. There are various activities that involve learning the language of music theory including clef, scales, and notes. The end results is the child's ability to compose songs with the bells through creative expression.
While the Montessori bells are not considered an instrument in and of themselves, they lay a powerful foundation for future musical exploration. The ear training and basic theory will translate well to any instrument. The base understanding will also give the child a deeper appreciation for music overall.
As great as the Montessori bells are, there is still one hurdle. They are nearly impossible to find at a price that is home-school budget-friendly. Thankfully, there are a few far cheaper alternatives.
One popular option is to buy two sets of hand bells and paint them. This is where I began originally several years ago. I purchased two tuned sets from Schylling and painted one set brown and one set white. These sets are generally multi-colored, and it's important to isolate the difficulty. If not, children will match colors or memorize the scale order versus using tonal awareness. One other thing to note is that most sets contain 8 bells for the diatonic scale versus the 13 for the chromatic, but it's enough to get through the core exercises.
As time went by, I began to see the many benefits of the traditional model. And then someone posted a beautiful remake on Montessori Homeschooling. Thank you LW! I knew it would be the perfect option for us.
Here are the steps I took.
We began by cutting the handles off the bells. Ours appeared to be molded together, most likely via ultrasonic welding. This means there is no simple way to take them apart. They were cut as close to the bell as possible. The handle and striker came off easily.
I stripped my bells down to the metal with Zinsser StripFast. You spray it on, wait 10 minutes and rinse it off. It took two coats to clean it all off, but I had several layers of additional paint on mine.
The next step was to cut the bases. I chose a 1X6 pine board as it required the least amount of cuts. I kept my bases 6 inches long, but they were cut at 3.5 inches. It's important to measure your bells to determine what size base you need. You want approximately 1/4 inch on each side. You don't want them to bang together, but you also don't want then too far apart. My final size was 3.5 X 6 X 1.
If you are using a chromatic set, you will need 16 sets. I put my father's workshop to good use.
Then the dowel rods were cut. I chose a 3/4 inch dowel as that fit my bells well. They were cut at approximately 5 inches each. This can vary based on the size of your bells. You want the dowel to be long enough that a child can wrap their hands around it to carry it. It's important to account for any height you lose attaching them to the base.
My father sanded the bases to give it a nice finish. This step isn't necessary but it adds to the overall quality.
I'm fortunate that my father has a drill press. He drilled holes about halfway through each base. The dowel fit snugly, but we added some glue just to be sure.
I had to return home, but I was able to mange the rest myself. I used a spray paint with primer to paint one set of bases white. I used a clear coat on the other half to keep the natural color.
I decided to paint my bells. It's hard to tell from the pre-painted picture, but a few of the bells had an uneven finish. Despite the fact that my sets were from the same manufacturer, there was a noticeable difference in the finish between each set. I picked a spray paint that was very close to the sliver color. I applied the thinnest coat possible and it greatly improved the finish. Not only will this finish be hard to chip, but it may not be noticeable if it did.
A word to the wise - use large enough cardboard so you don't permanently mark your driveway.
And if you apply 40 coats of white, bring it into your garage to dry. ;-) This is the point where I remembered why I do very few projects without the guidance of my father.
My father drilled holes in the dowels before sending me on my way. Thankfully they survived my excessive paint job.
I used these beveled washers to attach the bells.
The bell sits between the two washers. It allows it to float freely.
One washer is threaded on top.
The other is underneath. Then they are screwed onto the dowel.
I was amazed at how great they sounded. I'm convinced they ring even better than they did as hand bells.
Not only am I very pleased with the results, but my children adore them. There was something about the hand bell format that said to my boys, "This is a musical hammer." Now they are the most-used item in our room. And they are used correctly!
You can fine me at Montessori Homeschooling. Don't forget to follow me on Facebook.
And if you want to give my father a shout out, check out his photography page on Facebook. He is an exceptionally talented landscape and nature photographer.
This post is part of the 12 Months on Montessori Series. I am truly humbled to be part of this endeavor. I encourage you to visit all of the participating blogs to learn more abut Music.