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Ringing by Rhythm

Page history last edited by R H Johnston 9 years, 6 months ago

Ringing by Rhythm


Ringing by Sound and Rhythm 


The Sound of bells


When people hear the sound of bells being rung together in the English fashion, what do they hear?  Recordings of bells being rung show that the sound intensity varies very little through time, and consists of a wide mixture of sound frequencies.  It is not surprising therefore, that many people, especially if a lot of bells are being rung, the bells are heavy and they are rung quickly, hear a sea of sound with variations in the dominant perceived sound frequencies that may sound at times like cascades or waterfalls, but the individual bells are largely undifferentiated.  (People who can differentiate separate bells can get some idea of the effect by running a simulator program such as Abel, using a lot of bells and quick peal speeds: at some point - which varies from person to person - the sounds of the individual bells merge and it becomes impossible to hear them separately.  Abel provides sounds designed to be exceptionally easy to distinguish, so the merging of the sounds on real bells generally happens with fewer bells and at longer peal speeds.)


To ring well, ringers must be able to correctly time their bell relative to the others.   In English ringing, the correct timing of the bells is determined by the so-called "strike note", which is the relatively harsh crashing sound ("the splash") made by the impact of the clapper with the bell.  (In some towers, especially those built of brick, the actual knock of the clappers can be heard as the dominant sound above the sound of the bells themselves, in such locations as the access staircase.)  After the strike note, the bell resonates with a prolonged and more tonal sound which is a complex mixture of sound frequencies (See Bill Hibbert's website http://www.hibberts.co.uk/).  This sustain phase often becomes very much louder than the strike note, especially on large bells.  Ringers must be able to pick out the strike note within the total sound of each individual bell.  They must also be able to distinguish the sound made by the bell they are ringing from those being rung by other people, if they are to correctly place the bell in time within the sequence.  Although being musical and having a good sense of pitch helps, the tonal complexity of the overall sound makes these tasks difficult for everyone, and the ears need to be specifically trained to pick out the sounds of the successive strike notes.  Initially, this may be done by listening to an individual bell and picking out the initial sound of the clapper hitting the bell, and then noting how the more tuneful note follows.  The strike note is harder to pick out when other bells are ringing, so using a simulator, start with a few bells widely spaced, and then try to hear the separate strike notes as the rate of striking is increased.  Notice how hearing real bells tends to be more difficult.  This practice should be done first by a learner before starting to ring a bell, and is an exercise that should be repeated frequently as skill at ringing a bell develops.


Rhythm in ringing


A fundamental aspect of conventional musical performance is rhythm.  A child beginning a musical instrument plays one note after another, looking at the note on the score and then playing it, but the result is not a satisfactory musical performance.  Indeed, when a piece of music is played like that - even if the notes are approximately the right length - it can be remarkably difficult to decide what the tune is.  This is because much of the familiarity of a tune comes from the sense of rhythm, and the emphasis the bar structure provides, as it does from the pitch and length of the notes.  In conventional music the way the notes are played - e.g. loud or soft, staccato or legato - is also important.


Bell ringing should also be regarded as a - very public - musical performance, which should be a pleasure to listen to.  When ringing bells in the English style, there is no way to alter the character of the sound each bell makes, the only thing that can be altered is the timing of each bell.  The basic speed of the ringing is largely determined by the time it takes for the bells to turn through a full circle, but the spaces between the sounds of successive bells could be varied.  In English bell ringing the objective is to make the spacing as equal as possible, within one of two traditional rhythm patterns based on equal spacings.  In either style any variation from even spacing is a "striking fault".  English bell ringing should never sound "syncopated", still less should bells be clashing.  Perfection is notable for its comparative lack of emotional content.  It is important for ringers to know the rhythm pattern they are seeking to achieve, and computer simulation software has made it easy to listen to perfect ringing, and get the beat of the rhythm established in the mind. 


Most English ringing is performed in the "open handstroke" style, where the bells are rung equally spaced in turn at handstroke and then at backstroke, then there is a gap equal to the space that would otherwise be occupied by a bell before the next handstroke, and this pattern is repeated, viz: 123456123456 123456123456 123456123456 etc..  This style sounds musical as the handstroke gap acts as phrasing, and provides a "bar" structure of 2 rows, and in rounds allows the hum of the largest (tenor) bell to be heard.  The gap also provides a structure for listeners and ringers to relate to when all the bells are in an order other than rounds.


The alternative, found in Devon, Cornwall and parts of Yorkshire, is called the "closed handstoke" or "cartwheel" style, where the bells are rung equally spaced in turn at handstroke and then at backstroke and there is no gap before the pattern repeats, viz 123456123456123456123456123456123456etc..  Because there are no pauses, this style of ringing sounds more mechanical than open handstroke ringing, and can seem relentless.  Apart from 6-bell closed-handstroke method ringing in Yorkshire, in this style it is usual for the tenor bell to ring last each time, which provides a fixed point for the listener to latch onto.


The physicality of the two rhythm patterns is different.  In the "open handstoke" style, the handstroke gap plus the handstroke row takes longer to ring than the backstroke row.  In rounds, this requires more pull at backstroke to raise the bell higher at handstroke, with a weaker pull at handstroke to let the bell ring a little lower.  This style is normally rung with the bells rung up to and beyond the balance point at handstroke.  The "closed handstroke" style is typically rung with the bells ringing a bit quicker with the bells often below the balance point, and more of the pulling is done at handstroke rather than at backstroke because the bell needs to rise to the same height at both strokes. 


Once a rhythm is mastered, and the ringer is ringing to it, the ringer will feel the "beat" and many ringers sway in time with it: using the body in this way helps to establish the beat of the rhythm more firmly on the ringing.  But that rhythm has to be held in place by listening to every strike of every bell, all of the time.  There will always be a tendency for the speed of the general beat rhythm to change slightly, or for a ringer to move away from the precise spacing.  When ringing within the beat, the objective is to ring to that beat as smoothly and with as little effort as possible, pulling with exactly the same force every time, since that results in more accurate striking.  Ringing efficiently also minimises any tower sway there may be, and this may improve the go of the bells and make it easier to ring to the rhythm.


The ringers need to agree on the speed of the ringing, which means everyone setting the spaces equally to suit.  The tenor normally plays the main role in setting the speed, since it is usually the one that becomes hardest to ring if the speed is unsuitable.  The treble and second tend to be important in setting the space, at least initially when the bells are pulled off, since the remaining ringers tend to follow them at the same spacing.  However the better the band the more of a co-operative effort setting the speed and spacing becomes.


Why do many ringers not listen and ring rhythmically?


Unfortunately, the way many bellringers are taught does not encourage them either to listen to the bells nor to ring rhythmically right from the beginning, even while still learning bell handling.  Instead they are encouraged to "follow the bell in front" visually.  Hence they do not learn to ring their bell by internalising the rhythm, ringing primarily from that, while listening to the other bells to check that they have the speed and bell placing correct.  Following the bell in front induces a habit of leaving a set space after it, and given that no one rings perfectly all the time, this almost inevitably results in a rhythmless performance.  Such deeply ingrained habits become very difficult to break, so it is important that they are never formed in the first place.


Learners should therefore be trained to ring to rhythm from the beginning, and this must be well established before they attempt to ring with other people.  Moreover, like the routine practice of scales to maintain technique by conventional professional musicians, all ringers should undertake individual practices that will maintain and improve their standard of rhythm.


The basis of rhythm in ringing


Church bells are unusual musical instruments in that they have an inherent rhythm built into them, on account of how long it takes for the bell to turn over.  Almost all other instruments can be played equally easily over a wide range of beat speeds.  The range of speeds for a church bell is relatively limited, and any attempt to ring much faster or slower usually produces a degraded performance.  This inherent relatively fixed speed characteristic can, however, is used to advantage by the competent ringer who rings by rhythm.  Unfortunately ringing learners are not taught how to take advantage of it, and because they are typically taught to follow the bell in front, end up fighting the bell to try to put it in the place they think it should ring.  This is not only tiring, but does not usually result in the bell striking in the right place - either in terms of any underlying rhythm, or even at the distance from the bell in front that they were hoping for.


Teaching learners to ring by rhythm while learning bell handling.


The conventional practice of teaching learners first backstroke then handstroke on an up bell is one key reason why many ringers have no sense of rhythm.  Bells are at their hardest to control close to, at and beyond the balance (which is one reason why ringing the trebles on a heavy 12 is so difficult), and the different feel of the bell in each condition, and its sensitivity in this region to over or under pull makes almost impossible to learn how to ring rhythmically - if that is the only bell state you are taught at.  It is possible to ring by rhythm at the top but it is much harder to learn to do it there than it is on a bell part way up.  Full advantage should be taken of the fact that most people have used a swing as a child: ringing a bell below the balance is very similar.


To teach by rhythm learners should therefore be taught starting with the bell down, and be taught to ring by ringing it up and down.  Not only is this far safer (and less expensive on stay replacement!) than the conventional practice of teaching learners first backstroke then handstroke on an up bell, but they learn how to control the bell in all its ringing states, and so get an experiential understanding that pulling harder makes a bell go up (and ring slower and it will stretch your muscles at the end of the stroke), and that pulling less hard makes a bell drop (and ring more quickly).  Although superficially this means that the learner takes longer to gain bell control, unlike the top taught learner they are not frightened by what the bell may do because they have learned what to do to correct any problems that happen.  Moreover while they are ringing with the bell part way up they learn to work with the natural rhythm of the bell rather than fighting it, and learn how it feels to ring the bell right. 


They are taught to hold the bell at a part way up height and to keep the speed constant - this is done by getting them to match the sound of their bell with an artificial recording of a pair of bells ringing at constant speed (a computer program like Abel is the best way of generating these, with all but two adjacent bells configured to be silent).  They follow the first bell, and try to ring on top of the second one.  This is easier initially than trying to fill a hole in a recording of other bells, and it is much more obvious when the ringing is right, because a clash provides a more accurate hit than filling a space.  A number of such recordings (at different speeds) are used to get the learner to match the speed at various bell heights.  All this is done before any attempt to ring the bell up to the balance.  By this means they learn to treat the bell like a child's swing, and to pull no harder than is necessary to maintain the bell at the correct height, and to move slightly with the rhythm of the bell to establish the rhythm in their own body and mind.  The teacher should discourage the learner from trying to match the speed by forcing the bell into place: he should learn to do it using the minimum amount of effort.  This learning phase should not be hurried over.  It is vital to achieving efficient, safe and rhythmical bell control.  Once the bell height is such that the learner is working both strokes, he can start to learn how to make dodges, making the bell ring a little quicker at hand than at back by pulling the handstroke is little harder so the bell rises further the next backstroke (where they should feel their muscles being slightly stretched out like an elastic band) and then pulling  it at back more gently so the handstroke rises less far at handstroke.  And then dodging the other way, and other similar exercises.  Again these exercises are done with the aid of seeking to match the sounds on bell pair recordings.  Most people at this stage will find this approach quite rewarding - they will feel that they are learning how to control the large lump of metal upstairs.  There is something elemental about it, which is why children will play for hours on a swing. 


I have emphasised that all these exercises are undertaken without taking the bell up to the balance.  As they become more confident, they will be going ever nearer to balance as part of a series of exercises at all levels.  They will notice how the bell seems to get lighter as the bell approaches balance, and before they get there they must be made to think about what will happen once the bell reaches balance and then goes beyond it.  In the course of teaching to ring below balance they will have understood the importance of having the right amount of tail rope to ring at each bell height, so it will be natural for them to continue to think about it in those terms.  Equally they are aware of the way their muscles feel if they have overpulled for the height they are at, and learned to use their muscles like elastic bands or springs.  Because they have learned to ring gently when they do start to do to balance and beyond it, they will feel this as an extra stretch on their muscles, and as a consequence of the earlier learning phase as an indication to pull less hard next time.  Ringing over balance to rhythm is much harder than doing it below balance (this partly explains the accuracy achieved by Devon call change bands, which is often done below balance) and doing the same exercises at balance and slightly over balance should be continued until there is consistency of performance over a long period.  Once that has been done using Abel with spaces to fill between other bells is then introduced - again doing this at all stages of the up and down process. 


The advantages of this scheme are that it ensures the learner is focused on achieving a very high level of consistent bell control at all bell heights, and none of this work requires helpers to ring other bells, until they can ring safely and accurately.  When they do start to ring with other people they are used to ringing a) by rhythm, b) by listening rather than seeing, c) under control, d) without fear.


This type of practice should be the regular practice of the whole band, just as other musicians practice scales to train their ears and muscles, until everything is performed fully automatically.


The transition to ringing with other people.






Improving your striking for existing ringers.


Doing what has been suggested for complete novices is a big help for improvement in bell control.  Without relaible bell control and the ability to ring by rhythm in the absence of the distraction of other ringers doing it wrongly, you will find it hard to make improvements. 


A fundamental issue is that if you ring with bad ringers - ones who can't ring rythmically - then you have no chance of improving while you ring with them.  In fact there is a good chance that your ringing will get far worse.  So the key is to find some good ringers who are willing to ring with you.  However good ringers don't really want to ring with people who ring badly, since it causes their own standards to fall.  You therefore have to show very real enthusiasm and determination to try to ring as well as they do.  In fact, you will find it is very much easier to ring well (and without mistakes) with such a band than with a poor band.  The reason for that is that if you are the only learner, everyone else will be in exactly the right place and with an excellent rhythm, so all you have to do is fit in the middle of spaces they have left for you.  But they will not like it if you try to ring things that are technically too difficult for you and result in a lot of mistakes or lack of attention to your striking.  You will not get access to a really top class band if you are a learner, so choose carefully - seeking help from a band that is good enough for you to make progress, but is willing to help you, and where you do not feel uncomfortable.  If you are uncomfortable, the consequent stress tension you experience will result in you ringing less well that you are capable of.


When learning to improve your striking choose to ring a bell somewhere in the middle.  These are usually the easiest to ring to a good rhythm in method ringing.  Small bells require more careful control, and, unfortunately, except in the very best bands, the rhythm of the little bells is usually not good, and it is certainly much harder to find the rhythm on a little bell.  The largest bells are easiest to ring to rhythm in rounds, since the weight of the bell strongly contributes to the maintenance of a constant ringing speed, but in method ringing they become more difficult as they require a lot of skill to pull them just right for the next row, and this usually involves a lot of changes in the backstroke rope length.  The back bells tend to set the pace and the rhythm of the ringing, and everyone else seeks to fit in with them.


So ringing the 5th bell on 8 is a good early choice - the bell is close to the back bells which usually have the best and strongest sense of rhythm (and are generally rung by some of the better ringers) so it is fairly easy to decide what the rhythm is - and the bell is large enough to make it easy to stick with it.


Try to work out which ringers are te most reliable ones, and use them as your main check for being in the right place.  Ignore completely people who are consistently late or early or are erratic.  Rather than looking directly at the bell you are following, learn to relax and look at the floor on the opposite side of the circle.  You will still be able to see the order that the bells are ringing in, but you will be much less tempted to speed up or slow down if the bell you are following wrongly speeds up or slows down.  You will be more aware of your own sense of physical rhythm and of the sound of the bells.  For the same reasons, ringing looking at the floor helps a lot if the bells are odd-struck.


If your own bell is odd-struck, the best way to compensate for this is to adjust the tail length to suit, and adopt a systemmatic pulling style that consistently places the bell in the right place.  That avoids a lot of the need to think about the fact that the bell is odd-struck.  So, for example, if the bell is late at backstroke, shorten the backstroke and pull the backstroke harder than normal, and so let the handstroke rise a bit more than normal.  In fact it will feel like you are always doing what you would normally do if you were dodging all the time.  This amounts to ringing the bell with a different rhythm from normal.  A lot of people find it easier to compensate by shortening and pulling in the backstrokes than to push in the handstrokes when ringing a bell that is slow at handstroke.  If that is true for you, then try to get some practice at Devon call changes, since ringing cartwheel involves pushing in the handstrokes all the time. 


Problems with leading.  Many people find accurate leading difficult.  This is usually because they think of leading as being something different from the rest of the ringing - a result of having learned to ring as a mainly visual activity.  If you have hunted down to lead then you continue to ring at the same speed in the first blow at lead as you did previously, but the next blow has to be slower, so the pull on the rope at the first blow at lead has to be harder to slow the bell down.  How much harder depends on whether the next blow is at lead - a moderate extra pull - or 2nds place - a harder pull.  If this 2nd blow is at lead and the next is in seconds then the pull has lift the bell higher again.  Thus it is always necessary to pull so as to place the bell in the right place in the following row. 


Problems when ringing at the end of the row.  A common error is to allow the last bell to ring late at backstroke, and so partly fill the handstoke gap.  Some people feel this provides a "full stop" at the end of the pair of changes, but it disrupts the rhythm, by making it harder for the people who are leading to know when to ring, and makes the ringing feel as if it is dragging.  "Tenor behind" ringers are particularly prone to this error, but it also happens in even bell methods.


Ringing large bells.  Some of these techniques can be applied on small bells, but it is often not worthwhile, or may lead to less precise striking, as little bells are more likely to be affected by the big bells and so "suck" or "blow". 


In fact for the greatest efficiency of effort it is necessary not just to know your place in the next row, but also to know your place in the row after that as well - so if for example you are in the places a=1 b=1 c=2 d=1, then the pull at b to prepare for c can be less hard than it would be for a=1 b=1 c=2 d=3, since in the former case the bell can be allowed to float (i.e rise without needing to be pulled - which lets the bell take it full time to turn) in 2nd place and then fall back to 1st place for d, whereas in the other case the pull at b has to be hard enough to allow a further normal pull at c to achieve 3rds place at d.  This is because the pull at c will result in the bell taking less time than if it can float.


It is important to know the different ways of making your bell behave, and what the timing implications of that are.




Ooops I'm about to make a method mistake - can I avoid it?

If you suddenly realise you should be one blow earlier than you had planned for, then provided that you are ringing gently, this can be compensated at the last moment by a very hard pull.  That would normally push the bell up too high at the end of the stroke, so the bell will need to be decelerated hard at the end of the stroke to get the bell rhythm back to normal, and this causes the clapper to strike earlier than normal.    (It is possible to get a strong rhythm by overpulling all the time, and some people do that, but not only is it a lot of effort, but it makes impossible to make this sort of correction when you need it.)


Likewise if you suddenly realise your bell should be higher than you planned for you can sometimes risk "floating the bell" - letting it rise as far as it is able without checking it on the upstroke, and then pulling it very hard at the very end of the down stroke.  This presents no problems if your next place is lower in the next row, but if not then you will have to pull harder to raise for the following row, and often it is not possible to pull it hard enough to strike correctly in te current bell and get the bell up and to strike it in the correct place next time.  In such circumstances there is often a choice between a single very bad blow, and 2 or 3 less bad blows.


If the rhythm is poor and so the time of the next is uncertain you will need to pull harder and firmer and later than you do when you can ring gently with a smooth rhythm


Ringing on higher numbers.  Until they are used to ringing on higher numbers most ringers try to leave too large a gap, which slows the ringing down and makes it very diffcult to ring at the proper speed.  There is also a strong temptation to leave too large a handstoke gap.  The correct gap actually sounds too close to most people, including many 12 bell ringers.  Another common temptation is to spread the small bells out when these bells are together at the back.


Ringing the trebles on 12 (or more)


The problem of ringing little bells on 12, especially on a heavy ring is that it is necessary to stand the bell at every handstroke and backstroke, which is difficult enough for many people in itself, but also do this to a precise speed is still harder.  Also the little bells may suck or blow.  Assuming that the bands rhythm is basically good, and the bell is reasonably well behaved, ringing these bells is best done by ringing very gently, and taking the bell over the balance and never stopping the bell still, but always keeping it on the move - that way you will preserve your sense of rhythm.  This is what the best ringers of small bells on 12 do.


Not completed - some other things to cover ....


The objective is to ring metronomically - which produces bell music without emotional passion - rather like Bach.


Emphasising rollups - deprecated - belongs to era when only these were viewed as important - difficult to do well - requires everyone to have same view of what is important and to be sully aware of them coming up - disrupts rhythm


Problems with going on tiptoe - try to move as little as possible.


Can pull too gently (and sloppily) as well as too hard




(c) R H Johnston 10.11.2012 (v3), 5.12.2014 (v4)







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