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Pittsburgh Ringing Course, 2010

July Surprises

by Tony Furnivall

Pittsburgh Ringing Course, 2010

100 years ago, in 1910, the British School of Motoring opened its doors in Peckham, England. Its purpose was to provide quality education for drivers from beginners to more advanced students. When I learned to drive in England, in the late 60s, its logo was a map of England, with Cornwall as the leg reaching down to the pedals. Fast forward 100 years to Pittsburgh, where Cornwall is still helping people find their legs – albeit as one of the target surprise methods for the 2010 Pittsburgh Ringing Course.

The Pittsburgh Ringing Course (PRC) has been in operation for a few years now, under the benevolent leadership of Don Morrison, aided and abetted by Ross Finbow and Nick Rossi. The premise is very simple: Announce the topic for the year, solicit students, and then load them up with work, some of which is pretty arcane, but all of which turns out to be useful. I remember a couple of years ago, as part of a Bob Doubles course, being asked to imagine how the 73rd place bell in Plain Bob 100 would start. Not your every day topic of in-tower of conversation, and unlikely even to crop up after a goodly amount of post-ringing liquid refreshment – but useful in terms of thinking about the structure of Plain Bob, and how the bells move around the circle of work.

This year was Simple Surprise Methods – and the methods of interest were Cambridge Minor, Yorkshire Major, Cornwall Major and Lessness Major. That’s a lot of changes to learn, even with several months start. And accompanying the list was the short but fear-inducing announcement that we would not be wasting valuable rope-time on theory – we had to get all of that taken care of in advance. Don provided a great document with his perspective on the methods – which was a little beyond my level of comprehension, but certainly provided a new way to look at the two methods (Cambridge and Yorkshire) that I had already rung, and gave a little insight into the two new methods.

Cornwall turned out to be the major focus of the weekend, although both Yorkshire and Lessness made appearances.

This year’s course had 8 students, and 11 helpers – a good ratio because the ringing rarely stopped, and the helpers were rotated in and out to save them from burning out! There was a Thursday evening practice for the Southminster band, and fell into the trap of assuming that it would be primarily for the local ringers. Not so- at one point Don noticed, with a fiendish glee, that he a band composed of students and helpers for the course, and with no warning announced “Go Yorkshire!” I suppose that’s why it’s called a major surprise?! Post ringing refreshment at The Saloon was a good opportunity to catch up with old friends, and make some new ones.

The course was slated to start Friday evening, and Friday, during the day was to be given over to a little bit of socialising and tourism. This included eating one of the largest sandwiches I’ve ever attempted at Primanti Brothers, which was to be followed by a boat trip. However, after the unexpected Yorkshire from Thursday evening, the students all quietly bowed out of the boat trip, deciding that some last minute study was a Good Idea.

The initial segment of course-work was from 6pm to 9pm on Friday, and covered both Yorkshire and Cornwall. Because the lead ends for the two methods are in reverse order, it turned out to be easy to ring a few leads of Yorkshire to get back to the place where we had gone wrong in Cornwall. After a bit, though, we did get some clean courses of Cornwall. Don would stalk around the group offering comments and suggestions, or else – when someone else was conducting a touch – would remain on the sidelines, scrutinizing with a keen gaze the activities of the ringers.

Saturday we dove right back into Cornwall, accompanied this time by occasional courses of Lessness. A feature of the course is the use of Quarter Peal Attempts as ways of reinforcing the method under study. The weekend included four successful quarters,, as well as some good learning experiences which did not result in a successful attempt. It was good to have experienced helpers around to offer helpful suggestions from behind. Indeed, the quality and number of helpers goes a long way to making the PRC such a successful experience. Two good quarters on Saturday – one Yorkshire, and one Cornwall. Then off to another Pittsburgh dining experience; this time at the Church Brew Works. This place was very busy, and they seemed to have a bit of a problem for a while, accommodating two groups of twelve. However, we eventually made it to our tables, and enjoyed more traditional Pittsburgh cuisine, and traditional Pittsburgh beer. The big question of the evening was the meaning of the carved text above the nave: "In fide vivo Filii Dei, qui dilexit me, et tradidit semetipsum pro me."

In a carefully considered nod towards relevance as opposed to accuracy, we figured out that semetipsum referred to a state of half inebriation. This delightful inaccuracy was later corrected by Don. The line actually means: "my life is faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me." Upon reflection it is probably more a comment on the scrambled state of our brains after a day of intense ringing that made the whole discussion so important!

Sunday started with post service ringing, and two more quarters, separated by spliced Yorkshire, Cornwall and Lessness, and for the less adventurous amongst us (alright, for me), some more revision on Cornwall itself. There were also some touches with relatively few helpers – where the students were reliant on their memories of success to get through the ringing. The quarter peal I was in gave me yet another view of Don’s many talents. If he ever decides to give up ringing, he could go into the broadcast business, and do both blow-by-blow as well as color commentary. Either that or a career as an auctioneer – he can think so fast on his feet, and then produce a coherent set of commands and suggestions, for more than one ringer at a time!

The area where I felt I had most to learn was in identifying opportunities to interact with my course and after bells, and the treble. But this was not enough for Don, who noted that for a whole course I had not glanced at the treble, and promptly made another opportunity for me to do so better. One of the helpers had also privately suggested that there were places that communication with the treble would be helpful, and I promised to do better. However at the end of the touch I was greeted with “Tony! You’ve just broken my heart!” – I had evidently missed the very points that she had been suggesting!

By 5pm, when we rang the bells down, everyone had made great strides forward in ringing surprise, and we all looked back with some amazement on how far we had come over the previous 72 hours (despite my lack of eye-contact with the treble). Ringing, of course, is a lot of hard work, but it is accompanied by as much fun to make up for, and mitigate the stress. We thought, at one point, that we had a couple of visitors from Philadelphia, but upon closer examination, discovered that they were interlopers from further South!

It is a comforting thought, looking at the relative youth of many of the students and helpers, that the technical future of ringing in the USA is in good hands. No small part of this is due to Don and those who make the PRC possible each year. It is certainly one of the more intense course I have ever attended, and stretches both the mind and the muscles (I’m still sore in my shoulders). It also is a great way to renew old friendships and make new ones.

Don’s plans for 2011 are not yet certain – he is taking a bit of time to think about them, but will probably include something for the practical side of conducting. No matter what he chooses, it will be stimulating, challenging and above all, fun.

Posted Aug 10, 2010

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