Listen to your bell!

One of the things learners are routinely told by their teachers is to listen to their bell. This
is a problem for a beginner since in the initial stages there is so much else that needs to
be thought about that listening seems of secondary importance, even irrelevant. When you
start ringing rounds with the band your whole attention tends to be focussed on ringing
steadily and watching the rope of the bell in front; if you are even thinking about the need
to listen you are likely to decide that it can wait until later. Many ringers, including some
fairly accomplished ones, never really acquire the habit of listening to the bells. This isn’t a
question of how good their hearing is, though poor hearing is clearly going to be a
problem, but of whether the ringer is interpreting the sounds their ears are picking up and
then acting upon the information received.

As the writer of this short piece I need to own up at the outset to the fact that my own
listening skills are far from adequate, and my limitations frustrate me a great deal. If the
striking is not good, in other words if the ringing is uneven, maybe to the point where bells
are clashing with each other, you may hear someone say very loudly ‘listen to your bells,
please!’. This doesn’t necessarily seem to make any difference but it gets said anyway. So
what part does listening play in ringing well and how can we use it to our advantage?

We can conveniently divide the information we use to ring into three areas. These are your
physical contact with the bell via the rope, looking and listening. When you learn to ring
you will be concentrating heavily on the movements needed to ring your bell smoothly and
evenly, and to do this your actions have to be consistent stroke after stroke. This takes a
long while to master, and your technique will continue to improve as the years go by. As
you develop that relaxed, economical style that you have admired in more experienced
ringers you will develop a natural ‘feel’ for the bell, and your sense of rhythm will improve
also. So when things go slightly astray and others are unsure where they should be in the
order you will be one of those who can just carry on unperturbed for a few blows while
things settle down, confident that you are still in the right place. This is the foundation
stone of your ringing ability and quite naturally your first priority as a beginner.

The other two things I mentioned were looking and listening. So let’s consider the looking
part of things. I have heard that if we have the use of all five of our senses we generally
still gain about 80% of our information about the world around us through our eyes. We
look first and then use our other senses to confirm what we have seen. A bell ringer’s
natural inclination is to do pretty much exactly that. OK, your sense of taste and smell
aren’t a lot of use unless something rather unusual is going on, but you still have your
sense of touch, which I will take to include the physical feel of the bell via the rope, and
your hearing. So you watch the bell you are following and time your strokes by eye so you
follow at what you judge to be the right gap. As you progress people will talk to you about
ropesight, which is the ability to take in what all the other ropes are doing rather than
simply watching one of them. So to sound your bell in fourth place, but not knowing which
bell is going to be third, you use peripheral vision to watch all the other ropes and follow
the third one in the order, whichever it is. These are important skills to have, and ones that
you will continue to refine as you become more proficient. But there is a problem with all
this, which is that there is a delay between starting a stroke and the bell actually sounding,
complicated further by the fact that the length of that time delay is not consistent between
different bells and in different situations. The reasons aren’t important here but involve
such things as the size of the bell, and its rope wheel, whether the bell is ‘odd struck’,
whether you are moving down to the front or out to the back, and how fast the ringing is.
Your vision and sense of rhythm will put you in about the right place but to make it sound
right, which after all is what it’s all about, you need to listen. So let’s consider listening

Imagine we are ringing rounds. You use your basic technique to establish a good, steady
rhythm and your vision to stay in place behind the bell you are following. What you need to
be doing at the same time is picking out the sound of your own bell amongst the others
and listening to the gap between it and the bells in front and behind. You can then fine tune
your pulls to achieve the correct spacing. It will also help when the bells before and
after you are not striking very accurately, as the combination of rhythm and listening,
backed up by your vision, will help you to stay steady, and in turn help others to do the
same. If you are ringing a small bell and following a big one you will generally need to
leave a larger gap than you might expect, based on what you see, due to the difference in
the sizes of the rope wheels. Conversely for a big bell following a small one you may need
to pull in very close. These are things that you can only assess by listening. So from the
beginning of this article, when I said that learners tend to start by working with the feel of
the bell and their vision, I am now implying that ideally we should use the feel of the bell
and our hearing primarily, and back that up by using our vision.

You will see experienced ringers who appear not to look at the other bells when ringing, or
only rarely. This may be an illusion as some people are very good at using peripheral
vision and manage to maintain an inscrutable look whilst actually keeping a very close eye
on all the other ropes. But some really do ring entirely by ear and rhythm, and in fact there
have been blind bell ringers who have managed perfectly well. The fact is that vision is not
essential to ringing accurately, but listening definitely is. However, it’s a shame not to use
all the information available and to both look and listen has to be the best option if you can
do it.

So when we are ringing, no matter whether we are doing rounds, call changes or a
method, the process should be:

Look – pull – listen – adjust

This is a constant process and you could say that in effect you are doing all these things
more or less simultaneously. The important part is that listening tells us how accurate our
last stroke was and enables us to make a small adjustment to the timing of the next stroke
if required. Without this you are likely for the rest of your ringing career to have people
saying things like ‘pull your backstrokes in a bit, please’ or ‘give the five a bit more room’,
which ultimately is going to become tiresome.

There are a number of exercises and techniques that are helpful in developing your
listening and they are worthy of an article of their own. However my purpose here is simply
to convince you that listening is a vital part of your set of skills. Talk to whoever is teaching
you, or your tower captain, if you feel you need to work specifically on this aspect of
ringing. You can improve your listening ability at any time, but early in the learning process
is best if possible, so that it becomes something you do automatically and comfortably.

TCF. 4/16.