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Improvement and Advancement of Ringing Skills

by Ross Finbow

Much of the process of learning change ringing can only be achieved in practice; one can theorize “until the cows come home” about how to control a bell but all that is of virtually no use until you actually get the chance to do it.

Opportunities to practice are usually limited to a couple of hours a week at best, which is one reason why learning to ring tends to be such a long drawn out process.

Once the basics of handling have been achieved, how should an aspiring ringer make the most of limited opportunities to progress and improve his or her ringing abilities?

NOTE—“The basics of Handling” should include the ability to keep good control of your bell when it is being rung consistently below the balance point as well as being able to keep it at balance every stroke. (This will require the ability to move the position of your hands on the tail end.)

Many ringers strive so hard to keep the bell at balance they have major difficulty “keeping up” with its speed (and catching the sally suitably higher) when it is being rung below balance, but this is frequently necessary when hunting down.

The following offers some suggestions on this subject.

The first and to my mind by far most obvious option is to move to the UK where opportunities to practice and progress in ringing far exceed anywhere that I know of in the US. They also speak more or less the same language which is helpful.

But that may not be practical for many so what can be done for those without that option?

Discerning Opportunities

In practical terms, at least under currently prevailing conditions (2008) in North America, finding opportunities to practice and progress in ringing translates to a willingness and ability to travel.

Most aspiring ringers will find it hard getting the chance to ring more than basic methods on six or eight bells without help from other bands, and many will have difficulty even finding that.

So if you are able and willing to travel even occasionally it will increase your opportunities significantly.

The next step is to determine the events most suited to your current level of ability. Many factors are relevant at this point including the method or methods you want to ring, the aptitude and experience of the instructor(s) and the amount of rope time you can reasonably expect. The last factor is a function both of the likely number of experienced ringers and of non-experienced ringers anticipated.

Part of the problem of progressing in ringing is that each individual requires a support group of 5, 7 (or however many other bells need to be rung well) every time they practice. This obviously means that while each learner may only get (at best) a plain course or two of the method(s) they want to ring, if there are several wanting to practice the same or other method(s), unless there are many times more experienced ringers than inexperienced, the former will be fit to drop by the end of the session.

If cost is a factor in your ability to travel then it may be more beneficial to attend more than one event to which you can drive (and perhaps car pool) than to attend a single event to which you would have to fly.

Ringing Courses

At the time of writing, the second of what is hoped will continue to be annual Pittsburgh ringing courses has just been completed. Suggestions have been made that the format of these courses offers some useful guidelines to making the most of all opportunities to improve and progress ringing skills, whether they occur at a specifically targeted course or at some other event.

A well prepared, fairly intensive and not over-reaching course is probably the best circumstance for improvement. Too many students, too few helpers or too much material can reduce the effectiveness of a course.

The approach which is highly applicable to ringing at all levels and opportunities, and which has distinguished the Pittsburgh course from other NAG courses that I have experienced or heard about, is twofold:

Selecting Subject Matter

I think most people find it disheartening to learn something which they do not get a chance to ring.

Although one can never be sure of an opportunity to ring a particular method or methods, two particular factors have a major impact on one's chances:

It may help to converse with the person or persons who will be leading the ringing session(s) and to ask them what you are likely to have an opportunity to ring of those things you want to learn, and/or even to ask for an opportunity to ring a particular method.

It is quite possible if you request say a ten minute window to practice a particular method with a strong band and someone to stand behind you for guidance and critique, that this could easily be fitted into a normal area meeting. And perhaps this could become or at least be considered as a future addition to the typical area meeting format.

Warning—It is commonplace for aspiring ringers to imagine their ability as higher than it in fact is. This is partly due to natural optimism and partly due to more experienced ringers inadequately expressing your limitations, and of course partly due to the student's unwillingness to accept criticism when it is given.

So if you ask to practice (for example) Plain Bob be prepared to practice (for example) Plain Hunt if the session Ringing Master feels it would be more beneficial for you.

Sometimes a featured method or methods will be designated to encourage attendees to learn something new. This of course does not guarantee an opportunity to ring it (or them) but it does improve the odds.

What to learn

Most people have trouble learning more than one method at a time, so focus on a single method for a particular event.

This is more of a guideline for general open meetings than for dedicated courses, when the length of preparation time and a multi-session format make it feasible to do more extensive study but still do it thoroughly.

Form good habits from the first time you try to learn anything, which in most cases will be Plain Hunt.

Adopt a policy of learning as much as possible rather than as little as possible about a method. This should include:

If you follow the advice above it means when you learn Plain Hunt you should be able ring it as part of spliced and with or without bobs and singles.

It should also mean that if you learn Cambridge Surprise Minor you should also be able to ring Primrose, Ipswich and Norfolk. When you learn Cambridge (Minor) please look them up. The only differences occur at the half lead and the lead end, and do you best to think of them that way rather than as independent methods.

Likewise Yorkshire Surprise Major will also give you Belgrave and Woodstock if you just learn the basic method properly.

How to learn

It's very difficult to remember anything that has been recently learned when there are constant distractions, and ringing a bell requires an interruption to concentration roughly every 2 seconds when your bell needs to be controlled at the completion of each rotation.

So if you are trying to ring a method that you are not already familiar with you need to know it as thoroughly as possible.

It's common to see people looking at method lines immediately before ringing them, and that shouts that they have not done adequate study before coming to the tower.

Don't be lazy and try to do just enough to learn a method; do it properly and not only will you have a far better chance of ringing it well but you will find the information stays with you for much longer, possibly even until the next chance you have to ring it.

How to test yourself

Several tools are available to help you test yourself. They vary in sophistication and cost as do so many other things in life.

If you are fortunate enough to have access to a ringing simulator that it is probably the next best thing to actually ringing with a real band.

Abel is possibly the most widely used aid to method learning and it is no doubt helpful to some people, but there is nothing like ringing a method to confirm whether or not you know it well. is a site that offers a group of helpful ringing programs at no cost to the user. They are not as sophisticated as Abel but they offer an interactive approach to learning relatively simple methods and as such I feel they can be very useful.

Standing behind someone else who is ringing the method can be a good way to test yourself if you can find the opportunity to do so.

If you find other ways to learn that work for you so much the better, and don't be shy to share them (when asked) with others who may also find them helpful.

No Excuses

Keep in mind that if you are still looking at blue lines immediately prior to ringing YOU HAVE NOT DONE ENOUGH HOMEWORK.

There may be a possibility that you have been given inadequate time for sufficient study but that's a pretty thin argument, and not one that does anything to improve your performance or your opportunities.

And if, for whatever reason, you have not properly studied and learnt a method, just say so.

Once in a long while there may be a case for trying something to allow others a rare opportunity to try it also, but normally it's much better to ring things well even if they are a bit less complicated, that to fire through something harder just to say you did it.

In Conclusion

In general if you want to learn anything you need to research what useful information is available and then make the effort to understand it and learn it thoroughly.

Experienced ringers are usually more than willing to offer the benefit of their advice so take advantage of it, bearing in mind that it may not all be ideally suited to your current level of knowledge and ringing ability, and furthermore some of it may not even be correct.

Ringers who conduct quarters and particularly peals are especially likely to have useful advice to offer.

Posted Oct 04, 2008


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