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Bell Handling and Control

Page history last edited by R H Johnston 5 years, 10 months ago

A Training Scheme for teaching bell handling and control  - a better way


Principles - Teaching ringing and handling


Fabian Stedman wrote words that apply today with the same force as they did 350 years ago:


"Since the ringing of changes requires the peal of Bells, on which the changes are to be rung, to be first raised up to a set Pull (i.e. beyond balance), which compass (i.e. bell height, reflecting ringing speed, and hence ease of changing places) is most proper for the ringing of them; therefore the Learners first practice must be to raise a bell true (accurately) in peal, ring at low compass (i.e. below the balance (in rounds, below), and then cease (fall) true (accurately) in pealIn this consists the chief grounds (i.e. the fundamentals) of this Art, which depends on the Ear, and therefore much judgement (i.e. ability to assess what is needed) is required therein.  And to speak the truth, most practitioners are in these days somewhat deficient therein; the ringing of changes having generally diverted the Learners fancy from the practice of raising, round-ringing, and ceasing (falling), by which means we have in a manner lost one Excellency in the pursuit of another.  Therefore I could wish that the Practitioners of this Art would set a greater esteem on true (accurately struck) Ringing in general, since the only excellency as well in the ringing of Changes as Rounds depends thereon: the keeping of time being as essential to render all kinds of ringing pleasant to the ear, as 'tis to render any other kind of Musick; therefore the practitioner ought to have a Musical eare, and to have some judgement in beating time (i.e. be able to beat time accurately), without which he can never ring his Bell true (accurately) in its place. " (Campanalogia, Fabian Stedman, 1667, p22-23))


The essence of a good teaching method is that it can get good results without the need for a good teacher, and it ensures that groundwork is properly established before moving to more advanced topics ("the amateur practices until he gets it right, but the professional practises until he never gets it wrong").


Having said that, it must be emphasised that it is very easy for a bad teacher to misuse even the best teaching methods. Learning bell handling and control is the learning of a skill, and learning skills can never be rushed, because what is being learned involves training the body to do a task reliably, accurately and repeatedly, without the need for conscious intervention.  This is quite different from learning a set of facts. Most ringing teachers are far too anxious to move their pupils on quickly, with the result that they do not learn the necessary skills deeply enough, causing huge frustration to learners and training helpers alike. 


Although this has not been the practice in the past, as when learning orchestral instruments, the learner ought to be able to fully control his bell and be able to perform to a satisfactory standard before he attempts to ring with other people.  This allows the possibility of intensive, professionalised instruction, rapid progress and enhanced learner satisfaction, and that can done without wasting the time of competent ringers.

The current common bell handling training method, which seeks to get the ringer ringing with other people at the very earliest possibility, and which therefore starts and focuses initially on teaching top ringing, first backstroke and then handstroke separately, and then putting the two together is a bad method for teaching bellringing. (This approach was not widely used until it was introduced by the youthful CAW Troyte in his "Change Ringing" towards the end of the C19.   He had found teaching "top" first used in London, but it was used there mainly because the heavy bells there were rarely rung down, rather for any especially good training reasons.  Troyte did find a reason that was relevant at the time but less so now, in that he was teaching small boys who lacked strength for the very heavy going bells of the time that ran on plain bearings that were poorly maintained.  But Troyte's main objective was ideological - to distinguish change ringers from rounds ringers who learned the then traditional way by starting with the bell down.  The first chapter of his book which outlines his approach to teaching is here.)


It is a method which can be (sort of) made to work for teaching children, who were the normal recruits in Troyte's time and indeed up to the 1970s.  Children learn physical skills very easily as they are still programmed for such learning, and if they mislearn, they are easily corrected later.  Being small, it is also easy to help them learn to ring by ringing above them.  They are normally fearless, and have little idea that what they are doing might be dangerous.  Adults are very different.  The ability to pick up physical skills declines rapidly after puberty, learning typically becoming slow and difficult and any mislearning becomes  very difficult to eradicate.  Adults are more aware of danger and become fearful of the rope, of intrusions on their personal space (they move backwards away from the teacher), and being taller it is often impossible for the teacher to reach above the learner's hands. 


So I say that teaching top first is a bad method on account of the following typical outcomes:- ringers who are not in proper control of their bells, cannot reliably and rhythmically place it where they want to, are (rightly) fearful of losing control because they don't know how to recover if the bell drops, and consequently are fearful of the rope.  The fear encourages the development of bad handling habits, which are very difficult to eliminate.  And they lack adequate bell control and very often any sense that the bell has a natural rhythm which they should be exploiting in order to ring well.  The best teachers may manage to teach this way, but that is because they include other teaching activities and work harder on making sure any early errors are eliminated.  But the standard of bell control of those taught this by this method is generally poor as it encourages a "yank and stop" approach to ringing a bell rather than a smooth and rhythmical one.  The resulting handicaps persist as a barrier to progress - often indefinitely. Far too many ringers try to ring methods with inadequate bell control - they cannot place a bell accurately, or even half acceptably.  


The traditional teaching method is too trainer intensive,  in particular requiring too much direct trainer intervention on the rope, which not only creates anxiety for learner and pupil alike, but also inhibits learning.  If you want to drive a car up to its safe handling limits you have to practice and gradually work up to using its full possibilities.  Top ringing is ringing the bell at its top limits, and is the hardest aspect of ringing a bell because there is such a very fine balance between not pulling hard enough to reach balance, and pulling so hard that a stay breaks.  Ringing a bell is also rather like a child's swing.  You would not put a small child on a swing and lift the swing to its maximum height and push it off. - because the child would never go on a swing again! Many learners are put off ringing for the same reasons, and many of the survivors are handicapped by fear of the rope and what it and they might do.  Before we teach learners top ringing we should first allow them to become properly familiar with the bell and its rope where it is more controllable - they need to learn the envelope of the bells performance characteristics.  They have to learn this sooner or later anyway in order to ring up and down.  Best then to do this first, and then they will know they can always be in control.  

Current ringing training methods generally also take insufficient account of the need to develop upper body strength and control as an important part of the training process.  For most people today pulling their arms firmly downwards in a controlled manner is a wholly unaccustomed type of exercise.  Older people, especially, often have very poor muscular strength and control.  Usually when we use the large muscles of the arms we are not using them with a high degree of control.  So the body and brain have to become accustomed to doing this, and this takes a lot of specific physical practice to build the necessary strength and control.


It is regrettable that the Association of Ringing Teachers (ART) did not seek to develop and propagate a better method of teaching, starting from scratch, examining exactly why learners typically learn badly and get stuck, rather than (very largely) just codifying a provenly unreliable method of teaching that leaves many handicapped.  Teaching ought to encourage ringers to gain good bell control and rhythm all bell heights, from the beginning, and before ringing with other people at all.  (To be fair to ART  their methods have improved as time has gone by, but most ART trained teachers still seem in far to much of a hurry to get learners ringing with other people before they have adequate bell control, and a physical rhythm.)


The approach presented here makes learning bell handling and control much more equivalent to the process someone would use to teach himself to ring a bell unaided, and borrows from experience of the often derided Devon call change ringing.  It takes a lot longer than traditional methods before the learner rings with other people, but it makes subsequent progress far more rapid.  It starts with the bell down, but it is not just a question of starting with the bell down but moving on to top ringing as fast as possible.  A lot of time is given to "playing" with the bell to find its "performance envelope" and what can and cannot be done with it, and exploring the effects of what happens if the ringer does not do things correctly, but doing that in conditions that are not frightening. They need to experience for themselves what happens if the rope is slack, the effects of over or under-pulling, and how to let the bell help maintain the rhythm, and consequently how to ring efficiently.  It is important to learn how the bell feels in different conditions and how to use the rope to achieve a desired strike point and leave the bell in the right condition to make the next blow(s) as well.  This approach develops the feel, rhythm, hear, see priority paradigm.  The process develops the skills to ring up and down steadily at an externally defined speeds, and at the same time develops the control skills allow full control of the bell at all heights a manner that directly transfers to ringing primarily by rhythm at top.  Full control of the bell and its speed at all heights and the elements of change ringing should be achieved before ringing with other people.  To do otherwise just wastes everybody's time.  


Before training begins, it is desirable that a prospective learner understands what bell ringing is about - and the learner should watch  The Craft of Bellringing  (48 minutes on youtube) before formal training begins.  One important reason for doing so is to reveal that learning to ring is not as easy as it looks.


Health and Safety - to be covered before practical training starts


Wear suitable clothing - clothing must be loose especially under arms - sleeves must retract when arms are raised.  Women need to wear a suitable bra that will accept raising and lowering arms without causing discomfort..  Towers are usually cold, so clothing needs to be warm enough, but ringing creates warmth so there should be enough layers to allow warmth adjustment as the practice progresses.  Ties and anything worn around the neck should be removed or tucked into the shirt, and it is recommended that all rings be removed from the fingers.


Medical conditions - cardiovascular conditions, breathing problems, balance issues, muscle or joint conditions (e.g. arthritis) must be disclosed to the trainer so he can take account of them in terms of intensity of the training, and allowances and accommodations for infirmities.  Anyone with a pacemaker fitted should be careful to monitor whether stretching upwards and pulling downwards has any effect on the pacemaker wiring - there are ringers with pacemakers who do a lot of ringing.  If any unusual symptoms develop when ringing, stop ringing and investigate the reasons.  Older unfit people should be particularly alert to any signs of angina or heart attack.


Safety.  Like driving a car, ringing is generally a safe activity if properly performed and with proper respect for the bells and their hazards.  As with driving, it is essential to concentrate on the task in hand. To put matters into perspective, the bellringing serious accident rate is much lower than for road travel.  However just as with a car, failure to take proper care can result in serious, and occasionally fatal accidents.   Bells are heavy and a bell in motion contains a lot of stored energy, and cannot be stopped by human weight.  Ropes can be dangerous and must not be let go of (as they will fly about and loop round things or people), except if the rope starts to lift you off the ground, in which case it must be released immediately.  If you are holding sally just the release the sally, keeping hold of the tail.  If the tail is pulling you up, release the tail, as something (usually the stay) has broken.   NB It is much better to fall 3 or even 6 feet and getting some lower limb injuries by letting go than to hang on, with the certainty of hitting the ceiling or rope guides, sustaining hand and head injuries and then falling 20 feet and getting serious limb injuries. Failing to understand this causes most of the really serious bellringing injuries.  Most ringing injuries are minor - the most common being blisters, but rope burn also occurs in novices.  Poor rope control can result in the rope getting looped around parts of the body and if that occurs it may be necessary to let go of the rope - this is why good rope control is at the centre of bell handling training, and arms should be tucked in making such looping less likely.  Try to stop the rope ever getting behind you (as that is the commonest cause of looping) by moving aside or pushing it forwards again,  perhaps with an elbow. 


Safety: Bell down or Bell up.  Explain what is meant by a bell being "down" and "up".  A bell down is safe as there is no stored energy that can suddenly be released.  A bell that is up is dangerous as it has a lot of stored energy that will be converted into rapid motion if the rope is pulled and the bell comes off the stay and over the balance point.  Before pulling on any bell rope, a ringer must know whether the bell is up or down.  A novice must not pull off any bell until it has been checked by the instructor as to its current condition, but all ringers, including the novices, must also check this for himself every time he touches a bell rope.


Testing whether a bell is down or up.  With the rope held as if ringing an up bell (i.e. holding the tailend with no coils), pull gently on the sally and release.  If the rope then moves up and down smoothly a bit on its own the bell is down and is safe.  If it is hard to pull, or comes up a bit and then on release bounces unevenly the bell is up and unsafe.  If the bell is at backstroke - short tail at above head height, or the sally height is not in normal height position the bell is either up or is in some other unsafe condition (e.g. bell rope has slipped wheel).


Taking care of the bells and fittings. If the tower has a clock ensure the clock hammers are off before attempting to ring or move any of the bells.  Failing to do so can break bells, their fittings or damage the clock striking mechanisms, which can be very expensive to repair.  If any bell does not move as expected, or there are unusual noises, or the bell becomes very hard to ring, stop ringing immediately, and .inform the local steeple keeper or church authorities.  Failure to do so has resulted in serious and expensive accidents.  It is however normal for towers to move slightly but noticeably when the bells are rung.


Understanding how the bells work. 


Before attempting to ring, learners should be shown the bells and it should be explained how they work.  Before taking the novice up the tower warn about the need to take care, and to test all bells are in safe condition before entering the bell chamber.  Warn of specific hazards of the particular tower (bad steps), how to get onto the bell frame (if that is necessary)  Explain all the parts of the bell and its fittings and their function, especially noting the safety purpose of the stay and how it interacts with the slider.  If possible let the learner see the bell in motion.  (This is not always possible to do safely - there is a split action video in "The Craft of Bellringing"  (on youtube) as mentioned above.



Practical Bell work  


Use a bell of about 5 cwt for training - lighter ones are generally too flighty, and heavier ones may quickly exhaust the learner in the initial stages.  Start with bell DOWN.  The bell itself should have the clapper silenced with a double muffler, or in towers with sound control, the sound control should be closed and sufficiently quiet not to cause any external sound that is likely to annoy neighbours - there is nothing worse or infuriating than hearing the sound of a single bell or a few bells being sounded randomly.  Do NOT immobilise the clapper - it is important that learners are listening as well as feeling and seeing right from the start.


1) Learner to test for bell being down.  Show how to pull to test and get them to pull the right amount to do a safe test.  {lesson objective: how to check for a safe bell)


2) Stand the learner in position to address the rope.  They must learn to stand in the correct position next to the rope, at the right distance from it, and to be able to find this position reliably by letting the rope hang in front of them.  It should fall in line with their nose, and a few inches in front of them.  The ringer should stand with feet slightly apart. (lesson objective: how to stand correctly to ring a bell)


3) Ask the novice to make the bell sound, just pulling on the sally - the tail can be left loose.  Typically they will swing the bell to and fro and the bell will not sound.  Let them take it to about 45 degrees, but be sure to stop them going far enough for the clapper to start sounding on the wrong side.  Explain that this shows that simply swinging a bell does not make it strike - the reason is that the clapper has to be made to move and when the bell just swings the clapper doesn't move.  To make the bell strike the bell has to be stopped (technical word  "checked") at the end of the bell swing in order to allow the clapper to continue to move and so hit the bell and make it sound.  This swinging with checking is called chiming. Use this opportunity to explain how the clapper chases the bell when the bell is up and when the bell slows down the clapper crosses the bell to hit the bell mouth on the far side.  (lesson objective: bells sound only when the bell stops suddenly but the clapper continues to move and so strikes the bell)


4) Learning to chime.  Demonstrate chiming, just pulling on the sally - the tail should be left loose for this exercise, so the pull is as good as it can be.  This is a swing with a sharp jerk near the top of the upstroke of the rope to make the bell chime.  Initially the learner will need to make a bigger arc of the bell to check, than an experienced ringer.  Making a bell chime is quite hard work and do not let someone attempt this without success for more than a minute or two at a time.  They will need to rest.  Work on this until they can do this to make a consistent chime at a constant height with a regular rhythm, and can do this while distracted.  While they are doing this explain the fundamental importance of rhythm to all ringing.  Also explain that although this is not ringing proper, chiming is an important element of ringing as it is essential to ringing a bell up and down.  This exercise is a very useful one for muscle strength training, and on account of that should be repeated as part of every subsequent lesson.   (lesson objectives: produce effective bell chiming, develop muscle strength and control)


4a) Possible issues when learning to chime: some older novices, especially women, may find chiming very difficult or impossible.  This is a consequence of a lack of strength and especially upper arm strength.  If possible, transfer training to use a lighter bell, either in the same tower, another tower, or perhaps on a light weight dumb bell.(but the problem with these is that they typically can't be used to train chiming).  What people tend to do (intuitively, but wrongly) is then bend their arms more and/ or bend the body forwards.  This typically results in a *smaller* force being placed on the rope.  The novice must be shown that to get the maximum force they need to have their arms at full stretch, back straight and use the whole body weight by bending the knees.  This action will need to be demonstrated, and the novice work upon this until they can do this confidently and reliably.  Explain that ringing is about making the most efficient use of weight to make the bell do what you want it to do with the minimum of effort and maximum control.  Using muscles at the limit of their strength can never be done with good control.  Explain that doing things and finding they do not work well is a stepping stone to understanding *why* it is important to ring the right way. (lesson objectives: produce effective bell chiming, develop muscle strength and control)  (lesson objectives: overcome restrictions imposed by physical weakness)


5) Starting to raise the bell beyond chiming.  Demonstrate how to make coils.  Make the learner use only 2 coils, a normal sized one at the end of the rope followed by a larger one - more coils becomes confusing.  Get the learner to chiming to bell as in 4) and then ask them to pull harder and get the bell higher.  Typically they will try to do this without letting the rope out.  Use this to explain that this shows how the height a bell will ring at is controlled almost entirely by the length of the tail rope.  (Do a demonstration of pulling really very hard against a fixed tail length, and show how the bell goes round faster, and starts pulling the ringer upwards at backstroke, but the bell height is limited by the length of the rope)  (lesson objective: bell height is controlled by the length  of the tail rope)


6) Controlling the tail rope.  Demonstrate how to make coils - use only 2 coils, a normal sized one at the end of the rope followed by a larger one.  Demonstrate how to let the rope in and out one strand of rope at a time.  Get the learner to do this and be comfortable about doing this as a static exercise before transferring it to a moving bell.  NB Do not deal with releasing or making coils yet. (lesson objective: altering the rope length)


7) Controlling the bell at half height.  Make the learner  use only 2 coils, a normal sized one at the end of the rope followed by a single larger one that will be such as to get the bell up to sally bobbing height.  Get the learner to chiming to bell as in 4) and then ask them to pull harder and get the bell to sally just bobbing height, letting out the rope in small stages as the rope gets tight.  the objective to get the learner to control the height to the bell by a correct straight down backstroke pull that makes the handstroke sally bobbing at half height a consistent height with the rope in close and tight control at all times, and the sally bobbing in exactly the same place in space every time.  Typically learners let out rope prematurely, and will then lose control when the rope starts to behave unpredictably.  (When this occurs - it will at some point - use this to show the importance of keeping the rope tight at all times when the rope is rising.  Do a demonstration of just how erratic the rope becomes when it is not controlled tightly - it may form loops above rope guides, and snake about all over the place, and jump unpredictably, especially on a long draught tower). Quite often although the learner is pulling he is also checking at least as much, and the bell fails to raise or even falls.  The bell usually comes down still further and more rapidly as the rope is longer and the pulls less effective.  Again this will certainly happen at some point.  Use this to emphasise the need for a consistent pull and careful control of the tail end length.)  As the bell gets higher any departure from pulling straight down will result in the rope moving outwards.  (If this occurs use the occasion to point out the consequence and correct the defect.  If it does not occur - get the learner to do it deliberately so he sees what the effect is.)  Another likely fault is stepping backwards away from the rope.  (If this happens use the occasion to point out the consequences for the rope motion and correct the defect.  If it doesn't make the learner step back to see what the effect is.)  (lesson objectives: discover how to make the bell rise, how to keep it there consistently, solely by correctly pulled and controlled backstrokes. Know what happens if the rope is not pulled correctly and what do do about  it)


8) Controlling the bell at half height, and touching the sally.  As 7) with bell high enough to have 3-4 inches of sally jumping, but no more - beware lest the bell gets too high.  Upper hand comes off tail; to touch the rope at correct height but NOT circle it, hold it, pull it, and go back to the tail. Typical errors - attempting to pull sally, holding rather than touching, holding and not releasing so bell drops, touching sally too low. (lesson objective touch sally and return to rope)


8a) Touching the sally - possible issues.  Some ringers, especially in Devon circle the rope with thumb and finger and let the rope run through.  This style probably developed because many Devon towers once had very long unguided drafts of rope.  Devon tailed ropes are single strands with a small loop at the end and are suitable for this method of handling.  However there is a risk of rope burn, and on normal tucked ropes there is a danger of snagging the thumb and finger which could result in serious injury or even the amputation of a finger.  This style is not suitable for method ringing because it prevents the ringer from easily dynamically adjusting the length of the tail of the rope - which is a key element of this training method.


To be continued (when I have a suitable learner to remind me of everything - unfortunately this is no longer likely to happen as I now have a probably permanent disability that makes me unable to teach safely)...  - in the meantime, this page outlines some exercises used in later stages - see section "Teaching learners to ring by rhythm while learning bell handling"


(c) Richard Johnston, Draft 2, 5 Dec 2014, v3 7.12.2014, v4 9.5.2018, v5 1.8.2018

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