What Does Bells Up Mean?

I occasionally get reader questions which later develop into blog posts, and I also like looking at the various internet searches which bring people to this blog.  I’ve gotten several ideas based on what I see people searching for on Google and other search engines, as well as some interesting non sequiturs (more on those in a future post).  Recently I came across a search which read something along the lines of “what does bells up mean in orchestra and band?”  I’m not sure if this reader found any information on the subject, but I immediately thought it would make a good topic for my blog.

Basically, bells up is a quasi-theatrical effect which has probably been in use since the late 19th or early 20th century.  Anybody out there know off hand the first composer to use the bells up indication?  See the examples below for some famous bells up excerpts – the first is from the second movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, and the next two are from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

Mahler, Symphony No. 1

Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring

In the Mahler example bells up is indicated by the abbreviation “Schalltr. auf,” short for “Schalltrichter auf,” and in the Stravinsky the indication reads “pavillons en l’air.” Bells up does change the sound somewhat, but it is more striking visually than anything.  I found one definition of bells up in my rather old copy of Kent Kennan’s The Technique of Orchestration, Prentice-Hall, 1952.

“Bells in the air” (pavillons en l’air in French; Schalltrichter auf in German) is a rarely used effect for which the horn is turned with the bell pointing upward, so that the sound is projected outward toward the audience more directly than in the normal playing position. Inasmuch as the hand cannot be used in the bell here, the tone is completely open and lacking in any subtlety of coloring. “Bells in the air” is therefore appropriate only for loud, hearty passages in which refinement of tone is not called for. (p. 127)

This is a decent definition, however I wonder about leaving the hand out of the bell entirely.  I suppose it could be effective to do that in some cases, but I would rather keep my hand in the bell if at all possible for the sake of accuracy.  In the case of the Mahler 1 excerpt, the bells up effect is combined with stopped horn, so you have to have your hand or a stopping mute in the bell.  Probably the most useful definition for horn players can be found in Douglas Hill’s Extended Techniques for the Horn (now back in print!) His description and comments are clear and well written.

“Bells up” is a traditional directive to cause a louder, brassier, and more immediate sound… Raise the bell of the horn to at least a parallel position to the floor, being careful to cover with hand sufficiently for pitch, and adjust for mouthpiece angle change…Significant variety of the normal horn tone can be projected by such changes…Use of various materials for back drops, and distances of the bells from such rebounding surfaces, can also greatly affect the projected sound (p. 57)

So what does bells up look like?  The pictures below are one possible approach to bells up, what I would call the conservative approach.  I have had pretty good success with playing this way in both the Mahler and Stravinsky.  Notice that the hand position stays essentially the same as when playing regularly (second photo), and the horn is roughly parallel to the floor.  Note: I turned in my chair for the second photo so that my hand position is visible – you should not play bells up this way unless you want to really irritate the conductor and the rest of your section!

Though this approach may not be as visually effective as raising the instrument higher, it does have a couple of advantages: 1) you can get in and out of this position quickly, with relatively little disturbance to the embouchure, and 2) you can keep your regular hand position, as well as play stopped horn.  One other great resource on bells up is a website called The Orchestra: A User’s Manual.   Created by Andrew Hugill, this online orchestration guide features tons of video and audio examples with members of the Philharmonia Orchestra.  The section on the horn is wonderful, including this page on effects.   Simply click on the small icon next to each effect to watch a demonstration video with Cormac Ó hAodáin (Horn, Philharmonia Orchestra).  In his video Cormac discusses a couple of different possibilities for bells up, noting that his preference is to “go for it” with the bell quite high in the air.  Whatever you end up doing, make sure that you practice it well in advance of rehearsals, and coordinate with the other members of your section so that the effect looks (and sounds) uniform.


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You also need to be careful about seating positions. You don’t want to bump into the player on your right as you raise the bell. This can be a particular problem for amateur groups performing in relatively cramped spaces in old churches.

The way you are holding the horn is precisely how I was taught – horn horizontal (no higher than that), hand still in the bell.

The bells up position is also treated as a license to produce a raucous tone with maximum brassiness. if the truth be told, 90% or more of the sound effect can be achieved without raising the bell. But is it marvellously dramatic to watch!

I agree Jonathan. Etiquette and just being considerate of one’s section mates is very important. It’s also a good idea to make sure you aren’t playing directly into anyone’s face during a bells up passage.

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[…] Bells up! This is easily one of the most exciting things to see or hear as a horn player. This direction is usually written in the music, but also sometimes specifically asked for by the director (those are the best ones!). The only change you make is the direction in which you hold the horn. You hold the horn so the slides face straight up; it should be around 45° higher than it is in the regular sitting position. Your hand should be supporting in the same way as when you stand (see blog post here): the back of your hand inside the top of the bell (when it faces up). Then blast away (while maintaining control, of course)! Read more about why horns play bells up here. […]

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