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Change Ringing!

Change Ringing!

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“A field trip to a bell tower may be just the thing your homeschoolers need to step back wonderingly into the labyrinth of bell lore and to follow whatever threads interest them into their future.”
“A field trip to a bell tower may be just the thing your homeschoolers need to step back wonderingly into the labyrinth of bell lore and to follow whatever threads interest them into their future.”

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Published by: The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine on Jun 10, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Change Ringing!Sara Hill
Imagine entering a bell tower where eight people methodically draw ropes up and down.
Bells clang: “Tin tan, din dan, bim bam, bom bum.” 
Have you found a wormhole toseventeenth-
century England? Nope. It’s 2012 and you’re in a bell tower in . . .Birmingham, Alabama. Or Kalamazoo, Honolulu, Boston, or Seattle. More than likely there’sone within a day’s drive of your homeschool.
Nonetheless, it could be a wormhole of sorts. For the curious, the experience might lead
down any number of “rabbit trails,” from the London neighborhood of Jack the Ripper,
where the Liberty Bell was cast,
to the bell tower at Old North Church where 15-year-oldPaul Revere rang changes
to vocabulary building (
means “the ringing of bells”) to casting technology and acoustics, and even to the math and physics of change
ringing (statistics and braid theory). Experiencing the big bells is wonderful
, and it’s entirely
possible to get lost in collateral lore.
According to the
North American Guild of Change Ringers
(NAGCR), interest and
participation in “the Exercise” on church bells and handbells has grown in the last decade.
Today there are about five hundred change ringers in fifty different societies in NorthAmerica. With notice they generally welcome visitors for practices and performances. For alist of ringers and contact information, click here: 
Toplan your field
trip around a special occasion, you might want to consult their eventscalendar. On July fourth, for example,
The Guild of Bellringers at MassachusettsInstitute of Technology
(MIT) rings at Old North Church
absent Mr. Revere, of course. A
 joint concert called “Ring Around Charleston” (South Carolina) is held in February andincludes ringers from four different churches, including historic St. Michael’s (est. 1764).
Here’s what to expect on your field
1. A friendly group of ringers, all ages and occupations. At St. Paul’s, the youngest ringer is
a university student, although Jennifer Johnson began her ringing career in her nativeLondon at age 11.
From state to state, and from England to Europe and even to far-flungNew Zealand, change ringers are known for their hospitality and willingness to share theirlove and knowledge of the bells.
2. A ringing room in the bell tower (or “campanile”) where the fluffy ropes (or “sallies”)
extend through
holes in the ceiling. From here you can’t see the bells. The ringers stand in acircle to perform. Some groups may let you try your hand. It’s not as easy as it looks! Not
tall enough? No problem. Boxes of various heights are provided for you to stand on.
3. A view of the great bells and a joyful noise, beautifully odd and anachronistic. Themedieval world considered tolling bells as the voice of God, calling the faithful to worship,mourn, or rejoice
their major function still.The technology that made
 “change ringing” possible developed in post
-Reformation Englandwith the ability to hang a bell on a fully rotating wheel. As the bell rotates, the clapper
strikes it on the upswings. Ted Clark, Master Ringer at St. Paul’s, explains: “It takes about
two seconds for a bell to swing twice [through] 360 degrees and return to its startingposition. The ringer pulls the rope at two points . . . the handstroke and . . . the
For a demonstration click here:
. Now, imagine a circle of people alternately pulling on ropes in never-repeating sequences,and you have change ringing. Click here for a demonstration:
.Seems simple enough, right?Not so much. The basics can be learned quickly with practice, Clark says; however, he
believes what “draws people .
. . is that it is so different [from] modern life. It takes anincredibly long time to master the . . . fraction of a second [timing necessary] . . . . No
instant gratification here!” 
 Each bell in a ring
sometimes consisting of as many as twelve bells
is a different size andweight. Each must be precisely tuned, alone and with the others. An eight-bell ring, as at
St. Paul’s, covers a complete octave. The “small” treble bell, tuned to F
#, weighs as muchas a baby elephant at over 400 pounds and is 26 inches across. The large, sonorous tenor
also tuned to F#, but an octave lower
weighs as much as a draft horse at 1,495 poundsand is 48 inches across.
To simplify learning various “methods” (e.g., Grandsire Triples,
Plain Bob Doubles), the bells are numbered, beginning at #1 with the treble bell, and
represented on charts called “bluelines.” But there’s also an app for that! Called
, it’s
a ringing simulator for an
, and
The method made possible by wheel-hung bells comes with a price. Traditional songsrequire a quicker and more complex timing that is impossible to render on large, slow bells.About the most you can hope for on five bells is the last line of 
 “Pop Goes the Weasel,” 
designated as 14235.
Instead, change ringers aspire to develop the necessary ear, coordination, concentration,
and memory to ring what’s called a “peal.” This consists of at least five thousand sequences,
none repeated, and can last as long as three hours. On ten bells a complete performance
(or “extent”) would consist of more than 3,600,000 changes—or “permutations” in
mathematical terms
and take 90 days to complete!
Many say the world’s best ringers are at Westminster Abbey. I
magine being there in April2011 for the royal wedding of Prince William and Princess Kate. The ten bells were
 “swinging and ringing,” “rhyming and chiming.” 
You put your hands over your ears tomuffle the sound but still felt the vibrations in your body. What? No imagination? No
problem. Here’s a video clip: 
Want to take up change ringing but live too far away from a tower band? The solutionmight be a handbell group, also listed on the NAGCR site. Without the timing restrictions of the big bells, handbell groups can ring changes and songs.
Most church bel
ls today can be rung at the push of a button, but for Clark that’s an inferior
method. Button-
pushing activates hammers that strike stationary bells. “The tonalcharacteristics,” he says, are completely different. “The bell [that rings as it’s moving]
uces more harmonics” and a louder, richer tone.
 “[T]here is,” he continues, “peculiar beauty in imperfection. The best band of ringers willnever strike with 100% precision.” Although computers generate “perfect” music, people
still prefer to hear a live orchestra.
The Japanese call this phenomenon “wabi
sabi”: theflawed, human element that paradoxically affirms an art’s authenticity.
Besides, he says,
ringing bells by hand with a group of people “is a lot more fun.” 

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