Plain Bob class at Pittsburgh

Miami ringer Thomas attended the Plain Bob class at Pittsburgh’s Southminster Presbyterian Church‘s eight-bell tower Jul27Fr-29Su, led by Don Morrison and assisted by senior ringers from Kalamazoo, Marietta, and elsewhere.  Eight students from all over North America attended, generously hosted by local ringers.  The class focused on moving each student as far as possible towards Plain Bob competence on up to Major (seven working bells), using approaches including:

  • One student on the 3 surrounded by five steady ringers, with a senior ringer standing behind and coaching:  ringing Plain Hunt on Five with tenor behind, repeated plain courses of Plain Bob Doubles (five working bells plus tenor behind), and touches with cannily chosen sequences of calls to work the student through his/her weak points.
  • One student on the 4 surrounded by seven steady ringers, with a senior ringer standing behind:  ringing Plain Hunt on Seven, repeated plain courses of Plain Bob Triples (seven working bells), and touches.  Not all students appeared to reach the level of touches on seven.
  • Tenoring behind on six or eight, either in a band ringing advanced methods for fun or, once the student was steady enough, with a group including another student on a working bell.
  • Trebling on six or eight, again either in an advanced band or, once the student was steady enough, with a group including another student.  By the end of the weekend there was often a steady student trebling and another tenoring while a third student worked on ringing inside.
  • Bands with two students on working bells, usually the 3 and 4 out of eight.
  • Focused practice on placing blows properly when Plain Hunting, initially on six bells and then, once the blows were close enough on six, on eight, for which the placement is both harder to hear (because there are so many bells, striking so quickly in succession) and more stringently constrained (ditto).
  • Focused practice on dodging, with the band ringing a variant on Plain Hunt in which the student and three other ringers dodged every lead in the same place.  Each student was repeatedly worked through whichever dodges were giving him/her trouble, up or down.
  • Focused practice on whatever was not up to standard, for example placement of particular blows.  I worked extensively on placing the backstroke lead correctly instead of a hair too soon, for example, and on correctly placing the blow in fifths when hunting in, rather than slightly late.  Why only the blow in fifths?  That was the only one that was routinely off, mysteriously.  But th focused practice fixed it.

Don Morrison hosted a buffet for all the ringers aprés-ringing on Friday evening;  the band set out a buffet in one of the church buildings for Saturday lunch;  many of the ringers dined in and admired the splendid space of the Church Brew Works for Saturday dinner;  and the band set out a table of cold cuts for ringers to lunch on when they weren’t ringing on Sunday.

Though the four heavy bells were cast in 1814 for another tower, the Southminster tower will be celebrating its tenth anniversary later this year.  Its 3 and 4 were cast in 1934, and the light two in 2000 for this tower.  All eight were cast by the Whitechapel foundry, as were the Miami bells.  They range in weight from 494 to 917 pounds, but are hung with the center of gravity fairly far below the axis of rotation so that they ring only a little faster than the Miami bells.  It is said that there had been plans to use the space in the tower for a handball court, but the church’s director of music at the time blocked it, so that when a donor came forward it was possible to acquire and set up the bells and start a band.

The bells are hung in a square frame (rather than radially like Miami’s).  Anyone familiar with Miami’s bells will notice a number of differences in the parts of the mechanism and the way the bells are mounted in the frame.  It appears they were installed by local engineers unfamiliar with ringing, because the bel chamber was constructed with a concrete floor supported by steel beams into the tower walls and the bell frame was bolted directly to the concrete.   Consequently, when the bells rang the entire tower moved.  The motion was said to be perceptible six floors down in the basement of the church. The ringers cut the bolts, jacked up the frame, and set it back down atop wooden 2x8s laid flat, so that now when the bells ring the frame shifts back and forth a bit on the wooden supports but doesn’t move the tower.

The local engineers also decided that an intermediate chamber was unnecessary, so when the bells are ringing it is deafeningly loud, literally, in the ringing chamber.  A local ringer had a sound pressure meter in the ringing chamber on Saturday, and it was registering 87 decibels throughout the chamber while the bells were going.  Any sound 85 decibels or higher can cause permanent hearing loss;  a rule of thumb is that one hour is the maximum safe time at 85 dB, and the louder the sound the faster it causes permanent loss.  If you visit the Pittsburgh tower, please be sure to ask for a pair of earplugs from the large box of them the band keeps on the shelves in the far right corner of the room.  Preserve your hearing—you won’t be getting any more of it!