Nienhuis Montessori Bells

There is a special place in my heart for the Montessori Bells. Perhaps the Slavic side of me is naturally drawn to the melodious tones of bells as they have always been a part of my Russian heritage. Such prominence in Russian literature and culture have inevitably left an impression on me. Anytime I hear bells, I’m immediately drawn back to many childhood memories including a semester in St. Petersburg, walking down Nevsky Prospect with church bells ringing every step of the way… In any case, I’ve always held such high regard for this treasured Montessori material.

For those of you new to Montessori or who might not know much about the Bells, they are a unique piece of material which “provide a sensorial means for children to increase the acuity of their auditory perceptions,” as described by Jean K. Miller in her handbook, Montessori Music. The materials also consists of two ‘keyboards,’ a pair of black and white boards with green at the top of each. The keyboard allows for distinct placement of the bells which gives a visual impression of the major scale. This in turn, enables a child to naturally absorb the spacing of the bells as a pattern which coordinates with the scale. Further work with additional materials provide experiences in musical notation and for the child to read and write music.
Unfortunately, this Montessori apparatus is typically missing from Primary Classrooms. While I have no doubt that most Montessori teachers value the Bells and would welcome the chance to utilize them in their classrooms, the cost of a full set including the specialized stand is usually prohibitive. Such is the case for me!  Inspiration abound, however, when I read THIS POST about DIY Montessori Bells. The author of the post is a trained musician, so I completely trust what she has to say not only about the materials and how to go about making them, but also the theory behind the lessons using the DIY Bells set.
Thanks to a thoughtful donation of two sets of Schylling Musical Hand Bells from my mother (Thanks, Mom!), and a heaping dose of inspiration from the above mentioned post, I got to work making my own Montessori Bells set.  I will let it be known here, that spray paint and I are not quite ready to be friends! Somehow, I always end up with more on my hands and surrounding items than what I’m actually trying to spray… 😉 In any case, I remain amazed at what a little cardboard, masking tape, and acrylic paint (which is what I used to paint the keyboards) can accomplish!

Two sets of matching bells on my homemade keyboard.
Once all my bells were painted and the keyboard finished, I had to think a lot about the placement of this material in my classroom. To give a clear picture, let’s just say I was running out of ‘real estate’ in the classroom to house this set. I also wanted to be sure that the location in the classroom was in keeping with both the sensorial aspect of the material as well as the natural musical element. Really, there was only one space where this could work and it was at the front of the circle time rug, next to our calender and under the morning message. This location is ideal not only because it is now part of the Sensorial shelves of the classroom, but also it lends itself easily to group movement and music activities at circle time.
A view from above.  For those familiar with the Bells, you will notice I have not included the black bells.  Depending on interest and progress with this material in my classroom, I may add them later.
Now, for the actual shelving… This was a little bit of a challenge because as mentioned earlier, there is a shortage of space. Also, as it relates to the placement in the classroom, I didn’t want heavy looking, furniture-type shelving because I was afraid it would create an imbalance in the classroom. The height of the unit was also important to me in choosing the shelving because I want the children to be able to stand comfortably at the bells. In the end, I chose a couple of wire, three-tiered storage units of which I used only the bottom halves. A strategically placed piece of sturdy cardboard extended the middle to give a few extra inches in length. Lastly, to cover the wires and cardboard and to give a more finished look, I covered the top with a decorative table runner. My homemade keyboards and bells were then placed on top, creating a suitable space for the children to use the bells.
The Bells on their new “stand.”  I placed our Melody Harp and CD player underneath as those items were in this area prior to the Bells.  The small basket to the right of the CD player holds a set of headphones which the children use to listen to music. 
During this entire process, I have thought a lot about these bells and how I will present them in my classroom. I’ll be honest and say that the Montessori purist in me is struggling a little bit! That is simply because I strive to provide my students the most authentic Montessori experience and I fully understand that the Bells, the way Montessori intended them, have direct aims in not only music, but in movement as well. This version of the Bells might not necessarily adhere to every aspect the way Montessori intended, but I do think it allows a meaningful way for children to develop their auditory senses and explore music. In an attempt to remain true to the lessons with the Bells, I plan to provide a mallet and damper to use in the presentations (which you can see in the picture above at far right, next to the Bells). Certain modifications will obviously need to be made, but I plan to present lessons in handling and striking the bells – just as if a ‘real set’ of Montessori Bells were in use. In the end, I decided not to deny my students opportunities to work with an interesting set of materials simply because it’s, “not the real thing.” I keep telling myself that perhaps one day I’ll be fortunate enough to purchase a “real” set, and for now, this will do just fine!
A felt-lined tray at the far right of the Bells holds a mallet (this one is temporary, until a soft mallet on order arrives…) and a damper.  I made this ‘damper’ by simply sticking a furniture slider at the top of a large Popsicle stick.

Wish me luck in this latest endeavor in the classroom – I sincerely hope my efforts in making this material will be worthwhile….  (That’s the Montessori purist talking…!)  🙂

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