by Stevie Berryman, Houston Chamber Ringers
I like to think that I am neither selfish nor greedy, but when it comes to handbells I want all the toys, all their friends, and even their weird cousin. I’ve programmed for bells and theremin, bells and spoons, bells and referee whistle, so I’m comfortable combining other instruments with bells.
The easiest (and most versatile) instrument I have found to add to my bell choir has been the Cajon. This simple wood box is a lot like handbells in that it’s easy to play but difficult to master. It’s the “easy to play” aspect that makes it such a win for a bell choir which is not usually staffed with trained percussionists. It’s alright, neither am I. But I can sit on a box and smack with my hand in a steady rhythm and fortunately, the box does the rest.
Reasons You Fear Cajons:
1. If I sit on it, I’ll break it. Wrong. It’s big, it’s solid, and there’s no way I’m going to tell you what I weigh, but it holds me just fine.
2. I don’t know what to do. Can you clap your hands? Yeah, it’s like that.
3. There aren’t any notes written for me to play. Pick your own rhythm. Try playing on one, two, and four (like in this video). Play “ta ta ti-ti ta.” Or, pick a rhythmic line from the song you are playing and just double it on the Cajon (like in this video).
4. Everyone will know if I make a mistake. No one will know, because you are likely making up your part as you go. It’s not a mistake, it’s improvisation!
5. I don’t know how to play a Cajon. Sit on the box so that your legs straddle it. Tap, pat, or smack it in different places, and notice what happens. If you reach down low on the front of the box you’ll notice more bass tones. The upper edge gives a brighter treble sound. Fingertips sound different than the heel of your hand, which sounds different than the flat of your palm. None of these sounds are “wrong.” The different tonalities add interest to the part, just as different techniques add interest to the sound of handbells. Honestly...you can’t mess this up.
6. I only need it for one song, and then I might not use it again. Adding a Cajon to your instrument inventory is a bit like adding chimes, but at a fraction of the cost. Yes, there are a few pieces that require chimes to showcase their full potential. But there is a plethora of pieces that benefit from the addition of chimes, even when they aren’t specifically called for in the score. A Cajon brings a new dimension and color to your music, whether or not there is a specific written percussion part. If your music is contemporary, pop/rock, praise, mallet heavy, or non-western, it would most likely benefit from adding Cajon.
7. All my ringers are busy, so I don’t have anyone to play it. Your Cajon is like the gateway drug into handbell addiction. You don’t have to know anything about handbells to play it: you just need a decent sense of rhythm. That means you can look beyond your circle of ringers to find a player. And I’m sure you know a child or youth who would love to bang on a box for one of your songs. Honestly, it’s just as much fun to play as it looks!
So, give a Cajon a try. No fear! You are going to sound amazing.
For specific Cajon playing instruction, see our Blog post Cajon 101 Hands-On Practice by James Mobley.
About Stevie Berryman:
Stevie Berryman has served as the Conductor and Artistic Director of the Houston Chamber Ringers since August 2013. She is the Director of Handbells and Children's Music at Kinsmen Lutheran Church in Houston and assists with the fourth grade chimes choirs at Frank Elementary School. Stevie began ringing handbells over 20 years ago as a founding member of the Soli Deo Gloria Youth Handbell Choir at St. Stephen's UMC in Broken Arrow, OK. She's been ringing ever since all over the country, and is a former member of the Houston Bronze Ensemble. She has a particular passion for teaching children how to ring, and her innovative methods have made her a sought after educator at handbell festivals and in private clinics.