Learning to ring

Change ringing is an individual skill and a group activity (described in the NAGCR‘s introductory pamphlet).  First one learns to ring a bell safely and so it sounds when you want it to;  the first stages of this are taught one-on-one by an experienced ringer.  Then one learns to ring with other ringers, and how to participate in the ever-more-complex patterns that experienced ringers pursue.

Learning to ring requires a minimum commitment of two one-hour classes a week;  with less class time, or a full week or longer between classes, learners tend to forget so much by the next class that they make little progress.

We are always looking for new ringers, and run classes for novices several times a year.  All ages are welcome, and you need not be a Cathedral member.  Contact us to express interest, ask questions, or set up a visit.

Safety first and always

  1. Is the bell up or down? The rope looks the same either way. How ringers use the up knot and the down knot to signal the state of the bell. Testing the bell (instructor will show you how).
  2. If the instructor says do something do it immediately
  3. Don’t get caught in the rope
    1. No loose clothing or hair
    2. No earrings, bracelets, watches, or similar items;  you may wish to remove your glasses while ringing
    3. No tight clothing that restricts your motion
    4. Feet flat on the floor when ringing
    5. Fingers together, elbows generally to the sides
    6. Stand the right distance from the rope
  4. Keep your rope under control, moving straight up and down;  call for help if you need it
  5. Always keep a little tension in the rope
    1. Pull fast enough to stay ahead of the rope on the way down
    2. On the way up, let the rope lift your hands and arms
  6. Never try to catch the sally when it’s pausing or on the way down
  7. This is extremely rare, but If you feel yourself being lifted off the floor, let go with whichever hand is lifting you
  8. When you are sitting and others are ringing, arrange yourself so a rope cannot catch hold of you:  feet flat on the floor, arms close to your body, leaning back in your seat

I. Visualizing the whole setup

Ready to ring: a handstroke (L), a backstroke (R)

  1. The bell is two floors up, out of sight, so you control it by feel and by watching the rope
  2. Feeling the weight of the bell in the rope
  3. Ropes are pull-only;  pushing one does no good and can be dangerous
  4. The motion of the rope between bell and ringer
  5. The motion of the bell (video A Bell’s Motion)
    1. The wheel and the garter hole;  why handstroke and backstroke are different, and how
    2. How the rope wraps around the wheel at handstroke and at backstroke
    3. Set, held up at the balance, pulled off, rung, and set again
  6. Demo:  The motion of the rope as the bell swings each way, hand and back
    1. The sally comes down from the ceiling, pauses, rises and stops for a moment, dips back down to the pause, then zips up to the ceiling
    2. There is a lot of rope out at the bottom of both handstroke and backstroke;  the location of this lots-of-rope is controlled by the ringer’s long straight pull and (for the backstroke only) wrist-flick and thumb-push
    3. If the rope is pulled down straight, it goes back up straight too
    4. The bell rings slowest when it swings high (where we will aim to keep it during teaching), and faster when it swings lower
      1. When things start to go wrong with your pull, the bell will swing lower and thus faster;  you’ll feel like you don’t have time to make everything happen
      2. Don’t Panic
      3. A long straight pull will solve most problems, and swing the bell up higher so that everything slows down
      4. Call for help if you need it

II. Stance and motion

  1. End up an elbow’s distance from the rope
  2. Feet shoulder-width apart, right foot half-length ahead of left foot
  3. Slight lean forward from the hips
  4. Hands
    1. Right hand above, left below, heel of right hand touching left hand
    2. Thumb outside fingers
    3. Right thumb (only) along the rope
  5. “Handring” exercise on a down bell’s rope
  6. Motion
    1. Right above, left below, no space between
    2. Pull elbows out to sides to start the pull
    3. Long straight pull
    4. All the way down to straight arms again
    5. “Wrist flick” and final push with right thumb
    6. Vertical pull → vertical rope
    7. Long pull → rope stays vertical on the way back up
    8. Move slowest at the top of the motion, fastest at the bottom (like the bell will be)
    9. Follow through
  7. “Appropriate tension” exercise:  student and instructor take opposite ends of a practice tail, while the student keeps a tension in the rope and the instructor says “too much” until the appropriate, light tension is reached.  Then the student keeps a constant light tension in a practice tail while the instructor moves the other end, first slowly and smoothly, then less predictably;  first with the student’s eyes open, then with eyes closed.

III. Getting the rhythm

Dry run:  Instructor rings, student stands at a slight distance and moves hands straight up and down in proper position, matching the instructor’s speed

IV. Pulling off: instructor handles everything else and sets the bell

Instructor assists with a hand above the student’s as needed

  1. Talk it through:  take up the stretch in the rope, then feel the bell lift off the stay, then pull off, then let go at the bottom
  2. Long straight pull (see Motion above), right over left, follow through
  3. Pull fast enough to keep tension in the rope;  stay “ahead of the bell” all the way down
  4. Let go of the sally before it pauses and zooms back up (This will occur about four and a half feet above the floor, and will vary slightly from bell to bell;  memorize where this occurs relative to your own stature)
  5. Stay “ahead” of the bell all the way down: keep tension in the rope throughout your pull
  6. If you don’t feel tension in the rope, pull faster now
  7. Keep hands together all the way down, even after releasing the sally
  8. Follow through;  accelerate the hands downward even after the release. Why?
    1. Otherwise hands will slow down before the release
    2. Eventually the student will be holding the tail throughout this, and the follow through is needed to keep the rope flowing straight down to the floor
  9. Compare the feel of an up bell with that of a down bell
    1. Talk it through:
      1. Increasing tension as you take up the stretch in the rope
      2. Full tension once the weight of the bell is taken off the stay
      3. Tension decreases toward zero as the bell approaches the balance
      4. No tension means the bell is about to come down so pull now for safety
    2. See how the up bell feels; don’t pull off (instructor’s hands above student’s in case of accidental pull-off)
    3. Try to just lift the bell off the stay without pulling off, then return it to the stay
    4. Recognizing and tying the up knot and the down knot
  10. “Look to — treble’s going — she’s gone”
    1. Student will say this at every pull-off
    2. “Look to”:  after the student has taken the ringing stance and grasped the sally right over left, but before any pulling, to signal intent to pull off
    3. “Treble’s going”:  to signal that the student has taken up the tension in the rope and has felt the bell lift off the stay;  pause for a moment at this stage before gently pulling the bell over the balance
    4. “She’s gone”:  to signal that the student has felt the bell pass the balance, and is now into the pull
  11. The student will be unable to feel the bell pass the balance at first;  keep the pull-offs slow and gentle to aid discovery of this feel.  “Now do it again, but twice as slow.”
  12. Once the student is ready to feel the balance, the instructor guides them to feel the set point, in between the set point and the balance point, and the balance point, in terms of the feel of the rope
  13. Enough oomph to bring the bell up to the balance at back, but not so much that the bell bounces off the stay
  14. Talk through these distinctions, demonstrating them with the student on the other end of the practice rope:
    1. A hard vs. a gentle pull (force or “oomph”)
    2. A fast vs. a slow pull (speed)
    3. A fast pull vs. a hard pull, and a slow pull vs. a gentle pull (speed is different from oomph)

V. Backstrokes only, instructor pulls off and handles handstrokes

Backstrokes-only is the next step from the point of view of minimizing new skills needed.  However, some students may benefit from learning handstrokes first, since a student can pull a single handstroke and then think about it whereas with backstrokes the student has to keep pulling until the instructor can set the bell.

Instructor assists with a hand above the student’s as needed.

  1. Long straight pull
  2. Right hand above, left below, no space between
  3. Bend elbows out to start the pull
  4. All the way down to straight arms again
  5. Finish with a last push on the rope with your right thumb
  6. Vertical pull → vertical rope
  7. Long pull → rope stays vertical on the way up
  8. If the rope starts to waver, make your next pull straight down and all the way down
  9. Enough oomph to bring the bell up to the balance at hand, but not so much that the bell bounces off the stay
  10. Keep a little tension in the rope all the time:  stay ahead of the bell on the way down, and lag behind the bell on the way up, letting the rope lift your hands
  11. Exercise illustrating the distinction between a fast and a hard push (pushes being easier to visualize than tensions):  instructor holds hand out, student pushes against it, instructor backs away across the room.  It doesn’t matter how hard you push if you aren’t pushing fast enough;  same for pulling.
  12. If the opportunity arises, the student sets the bell at back, noting that the feel of the balance and set points is like at hand.
  13. Pulling off from being set at back.
  14. (Once the student has gotten a fairly straight pull)  Raising a bell from down to when the student is flicking the wrists, keeping a perfectly straight pull.  Continue only as long as the student can keep good ringing form and a straight pull;  then stop immediately, the student is done, possibly for the day.  This will strengthen the ringing muscles and help the student bring the arms down quickly at the end with a quick wrist flip.

Diagnosing problems with your pull

VI. Catching the sally

  1. Right hand only to start with, while instructor rings.  The instructor rings the bell down until the handstroke has disappeared, then gradually raises it so the sally bounces then developes a handstroke, raising the bell as the student gets the hang of catching.
    1. The student “claps his/her hands” on the sally at the moment when it’s stationary to get the rhythm.
    2. Then pinch just for an instant, with thumb and forefinger only
    3. Once the timing is mastered, then catch with right hand only (thumb and all fingers), pull all the way straight down, and let go at the bottom
    4. Then with both hands
    5. The height by which the release must be made
  2. Both hands: right above, left below, no space between
  3. The most important part of the handstroke is letting go of the sally soon enough.  Everything else is optional (including catching it at all).
  4. Remember to let go of the sally at the bottom of your pull!
  5. If you bungle the catch, let it go!  “A good miss is better than a bad catch”
  6. Instructor demo: a ringer can control the rope without touching the sally
  7. Where to catch:  a “Three Bears” rule
    1. Not too soon or too high:  you’ll be jerked up by the bell
    2. Not too late or too low:  you won’t be able to make a long pull
    3. Just right!
  8. How to tell if you are catching too high or too low
  9. There is plenty of time (really, there is);  why?
  10. Video A Sally’s Motion

VII. Handstrokes

Handstrokes only, instructor holds the tail and handles backstrokes

  1. Pull off only, then instructor handles all strokes
  2. Pull off, then single handstrokes as directed
  3. Pull off, then several handstrokes in sequence
  4. Pull off, then all handstrokes

Diagnosing problems with your pull

VIII. Full strokes

  1. Talk through the catch and handstroke plus holding the tail
    1. Open your left hand fingers enough (all four!) and your thumb enough
    2. The tail somehow stays put;  it’s a miracle, don’t worry about it, just accept it
    3. Remember your good habits:
      1. Right hand over left
      2. Right hand heel touching left hand thumb base
      3. Long straight pull
      4. Keep ahead of the rope
      5. Release the sally at the bottom, before it pauses and zooms back up
    4. Right hand back on the tail after the release
      1. Left hand keeps hold of tail throughout, of course
      2. If your hands stayed together, your right hand will be in exactly the right position to take hold of the tail again
  2. Pull off and keep the tail, instructor takes handstroke and sets the bell
  3. Pull off, backstrokes, and occasional single handstrokes
  4. Several handstrokes in sequence
  5. Full strokes
  6. Developing and keeping good habits

IX. Setting the bell

  1. The bell can be set at hand (the usual way) or at back (less common, and trickier to pull off from)
  2. Learn to set at hand first
  3. Gently, gently!
  4. Long straight pull
  5. Give your backstroke the right amount of oomph (Three Bears)
    1. Not too much:  the bell will bounce off the stay (or even break the stay)
    2. Not too little:  the bell won’t reach the balance
    3. Just right:  get the bell to the balance and slowly over
  6. After you catch the sally, brake its rise (gently, gently!) and feel for when the bell reaches the balance (if it rises that high)
  7. After the bell passes the balance, stop and hold it if possible, then ease it down on its stay
    ※ Safety:  Never release the sally until the bell is firmly settled on the stay
  8. Don’t be deceived:  if the bell didn’t quite reach the balance, it is going to swing back down
    ※ Safety:  You must be prepared to pull if it comes down
  9. Goals to aim for
    1. Be able to stop just before setting, and hold the bell “at the balance” (actually, just beyond the balance point but above the stay) at hand
    2. Set the bell at hand five times in a row
    3. Hold the bell at the balance at hand twelve times in a row
    4. Set the bell at back five times in a row
    5. Hold the bell at the balance at back five times in a row
    6. Hold the bell at every stroke, back and hand, twelve times in a row (six at back and six at hand)
    7. Hold the bell at every stroke, back and hand, twenty times in a row.  When you have done this, tradition holds that you are no longer a new learner, you are a bellringer.

X. Raising and lowering the bell

    ※ Safety:  Never take a coil until you have tested the bell and found that it is down.

  1. Talk through the processes of raising and lowering:
    1. The amount of available rope, at each height of the bell, and the use of coils to keep it manageable
    2. Right hand only on the sally
    3. Crawl up and down the rope;  no big jumps (why not?)
    4. The emergence (on the way up) and disappearance (on the way down) of the handstroke
    5. Why and how to chime the bell when you start to raise
    6. Controlling the rope as you raise
      1. Reach up as if pulling off, then slide your hands six inches down the sally and grip it
      2. Keep your pull long and straight
      3. Don’t let your extra effort spoil your form
      4. Keep your right hand crawling steadily down even while you are releasing a coil with your left hand
      5. After you release each coil, crawl your left hand up to your right, or let there be a separation between them until your right hand has crawled down to your left
      6. Resist the temptation to let out more rope than the bell needs right now
      7. At some point the handstroke will appear;  steady it at first if needed, and be sure to release soon enough particularly when the handstroke is still short
    7. Controlling the rope as you lower
      1. Keep your pull long and straight
      2. Choke the bell at the top of each stroke, but keep your pull gentle
      3. Keep your right hand pulling straight down while you are taking a coil with your left hand
      4. As you finish taking a coil, ensure that your left hand ends up precisely under your right hand
      5. At some point the handstroke will shrink and disappear;  before it disappears, stop pulling or even steadying it, just keep both hands on the backstroke and focus on keeping the rope vertical and under control
    8. Challenges posed by raising
      1. It’s vigorous exercise and tires the muscles you use for ringing
      2. Keep good ringing form despite tired muscles
      3. Ring with good form, but more oomph
      4. Get the bell past the stuck-halfway-up stage
    9. Challenges posed by lowering
      1. Keep the rope moving vertically even while you are taking a coil
      2. Separate your concerns:
        1. Right hand:  keep the rope up to the bell straight
        2. Left hand:  take coils
      3. Pull gently, just enough tension to keep the rope straight
      4. Check the bell at the top of each stroke, but don’t let the oomph of your check disturb your gentle pull
    10. Dealing with problems when raising and when lowering
      1. Long straight pull
      2. When lowering, use your left hand to take coils
  2. Practice taking and releasing coils and crawling up and down the rope, using a practice rope or the rope of a down bell
  3. Raise up to the first coil, then lower:  stop raising when the coil gets tight, and lower the bell back down
  4. Raise beyond the first coil, then lower:  release the first coil when it gets tight and raise a bit more (but not so far that the handstroke starts to appear), then lower the bell back down, taking a coil when appropriate
  5. Raise the bell and set it
  6. Lower the bell from its set position

XI. Controlling your bell’s ringing speed

Up to this point you have focused on ringing up near the balance, in order to develop a feel for sensing when the bell is up near the balance and to keep everything happening nice and slowly.  Now it’s time to control how fast your bell rings.

  • To ring faster, let the bell ring lower;  the lower it swings, the faster it rings
  • To ring slower, make the bell ring higher;  the higher it swings, the slower it rings

Review the video A Bell’s Motion to get a sense of how the speed varies with the height.

Practice ringing your bell at different speeds.


When a new ringer reaches this point, typically after 12 to 18 hours of instruction, we integrate them into the band.

Learning to ring in a band

Contact us if you are interested in learning to ring!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s