Learning to ring

One of the fascinations of change-ringing is that there is always room to learn more, although I suppose one might eventually reach a level where it generally all seems well-established. Alternatively, in practice you may hit a level where something other than your ability and interest in learning new things stops your progress... perhaps you reach the highest level that you can get to practices for, or (as in my case) one aspect of your ringing (such as physical bell control) limits what the people running ringing are prepared to let you ring.

A notable, and often frustrating, thing about learning to ring is that some of the more important stages of learning happen rather suddenly... you keep on practising, thinking you're never going to manage some particular thing (such as ropesight), and then suddenly it "clicks" and you can do it. Some other aspects of ringing well develop more gradually, however.

Ringing, particularly Method Ringing, requires a combination of skills. There are some definite stages in learning to ring, some of which must happen in a particular order, although others may come at various points relative to the others.

Some teachers insist on a learner mastering one skill perfectly before going on to the next. I (and I was always a pupil, never a teacher) reckon this may produce a few good ringers, but will produce a lot of bored, disillusioned, frustrated ex-ringers, and would suggest that, at any time, you should be working on a couple of things: one which you're aiming to ring perfectly, and the other of which you're aiming to ring at all. If the latter is chosen appropriately, not only will the stretching of your skills help you to keep going when repeated practice at one thing is becoming dull, but it should also speed your improvement on the simpler skill that you're perfecting. For example, at the time of writing, I'm mostly learning Surprise Major (that is, methods on eight bells) but am also doing some Grandsire Cinques (that is, on eleven bells). I reckon I've improved at eight-bell ringing far faster than I would have had I not been doing some eleven-bell ringing. Sure, I may have done some poor eleven-bell ringing to start with, but I would have done that had I left it until my eight-bell ringing had improved, anyway.

Teachers and teaching

Change-ringing is a complex thing to learn -- it could in fact be the most complex of all human pastimes -- and not everyone who teaches it will be good at teaching it. (There are few opportunities for ringers to be taught how to teach, although some organized arrangements for this are beginning to be made.)

Usually the teaching in a tower will be done by the tower captain. Finding a tower with a helpful tower captain (or other teacher) makes a big difference to what kind of experience you will find learning to ring. Best of all is someone who understands that it is normal for learners to make mistakes (when they can reliably do things perfectly, they will no longer be learners) and who can understand what your difficulties are. If you get someone who shouts a lot and who seems to think that you must be getting things wrong deliberately to annoy him or her, but are still interested in learning to ring, don't be discouraged; you may well find it worthwhile to look around for a friendlier tower.

A good atmosphere for learning

It's generally easiest to learn things in an unstressed environment. If you can find a tower where they treat mistakes as something to work on but not something to be angry about, make the most of it! Unfortunately, high standards are generally accompanied by intolerance of mistakes. If you find yourself being shouted at for an honest mistake, hold on to the fact that your mistake is your problem, their anger is their problem. However, don't be cavalier about making mistakes; they do sound nasty from outside the tower, and give the public a poor impression of ringers.

Interpreting what your teacher says

Teachers of ringing don't always explain things in terms that will make sense to you -- for many aspects of the Exercise, there are several ways of doing things and several ways of thinking of things. Sometimes someone will explain something using a mental model very different from yours. If you don't understand them, it doesn't mean you're stupid, just that they're explaining it the wrong way for you. The best solution to this is to ask someone else. You'll gradually work out which ringers think of things in ways that make sense to you. Asking for further clarification from the person who has just confused you generally just makes it worse -- they're likely to give further explanation from the same viewpoint.

Palpable falsehoods and inappropriate truths

Teachers of ringing are subject to all the normal restrictions of being human, and not everything your teacher tells you about how to ring will be both accurate and appropriate. Sometimes they will tell you one of several correct ways to do something, as if it's the only way to do it (but in fact it may not be the right way for you). A common example of this is telling you that your arms must be straight at the top of each stroke. This is a good starting technique, but many perfectly competent ringers don't always do it.


Bell Handling and Control

This is the first thing to learn -- to control the rope and the bell, so you can get the bell to go just up to the balance, or, to be on the safe side, just over it but without hitting the stay and bouncing off.

Once you've got reasonable control, you can move on to further stages, but should continue to pay attention to this, in particular:


Having learnt to handle the bell (ringing by yourself) and to vary its speed, you'll go on to ring in rounds with other ringers, and at this stage you have to learn to control the speed more accurately, to get your bell to ring at the right time relative to the others. To do this, you also need to learn to listen to the bells.

Like bell handling, listening and striking are skills that you have to continue to work on as you learn other things. In particular, when you start ringing on a larger number of bells, the time gap between the bells is smaller and so the precision of your timing becomes more important. For ringing on twelve bells, it's generally reckoned you should aim to be able to control the bell's timing with an accuracy of about 20 milliseconds for the ringing to sound perfect -- twelve bells are sounding twice each in about 5 seconds, and so are sounding about 200 milliseconds apart.


This, loosely speaking, is the ability to spot where in the sequence of moving ropes you should start yours moving. It's hard to define quite how this works, as there are several parts to it. Some of it is counting how many other ropes have started to move ``counting your place'', and some of it is learning patterns of how you pass other bells. You typically learn to do this while ringing plain hunt. (More to come on this)

Method learning

This is the ability to learn the ``lines'' of methods. (More to come on this.)


To ring well, you have to be able to concentrate on several things at the same time -- which place you're in, where in the method you are, and the striking and handling, and other things too. Building the ability to concentrate is important; this can also have a meditative aspect to it, in the sense of clearing the mind; eventually, some parts of ringing will work they way into your mind to the extent that you can do them without concentrating on them as such, and almost without being aware of them; I think it is quite normal for plain hunt to be done in a state that seems trance-like, it becomes so automatic; likewise, covering. Another useful skill in this area is the ability to work out whats going on when you come out of a momentary lapse of concentration.

Stages of learning to ring

Bell handling

The first stage of learning to ring is bell-handling, that is, how to pull the rope... sounds obvious, but this is non-trivial, and typically takes a couple of months at one session a week. There are two parts to the cycle of movements a bell and its rope and ringer make: handstroke and backstroke. The hardest part of the cycle to learn is catching the sally as it comes into place after backstroke ready for the next handstroke. The usual way of teaching bell handling has the learner starting with pulling off for just one of the strokes, with the teacher doing the rest, and then learning the other stroke, and then learning to catch. Another way is to teach starts with the bell down, and gradually increasing the amount of movement until ringing with the bell fully up. I learnt the former way, as most people do; the latter sounds more sensible to me, though.


Once you've learnt to handle the bell for a whole pull, the next thing to learn is to ring it in time with the other bells, which you'll start by attempting to ring in rounds, adjusting the speed of your ringing to fit into place between the other bells.

Called Changes

Having learnt to keep a steady place in the change and to adjust your speed as needed to match the other bells, you'll then learn to vary your speed to change places, for one change at a time, swapping with one other bell as called by the conductor. This is known as called changes.

When learning to do called changes, you'll also learn to lead, that is, ring at the start of the change, which you do by following the last bell but at the other stroke, that is, the leading bell's handstroke is after the last bell's backstroke, and vice versa.

Before going on to learn Plain Hunt, you may well do some dodging practice, in which you repeatedly change places with one other bell on each successive change.

At this stage you may prepare for learning Plain Hunt by watching it being rung, perhaps standing behind someone ringing it who may explain what they're doing. An earlier stage of preparation that I think might be helpful would be to watch some ringing, trying to spot the first rope to go up or down on each change; then, once you can do that, try watching for the second rope to move, then the third, and so on.

Plain Hunt

In plain hunting, you ring in a series of different places in the change, moving alternately to the front of the change (that is, earlier) by ringing faster, and to the back of the change, by ringing more slowly. Since the treble must start by moving out (that is, toward the back of the change) and crosses with the 2nd, and the next pair cross, and so on, odd-numbered bells start by going out, and even bells by going in.

Acquiring Ropesight

One of the most important stages in becoming a proficient method ringer is the developemnt of ropesight. This is one of those things that ``just clicks'' eventually, and I don't know of any systematic way of teaching it. For me, it was when lots of our band were away over Christmas, and we were reduced to ringing minimus; with only three ropes (other than my own) to watch, I found it possible to tell which rope I was ringing after. So my suggested exercise for this is to ring Plain Hunt, perhaps on three bells, thinking of it ``ring after one other rope; ring after both other ropes; ring after both other ropes; ring after one other rope; lead; lead; ring after one other rope...''

Until you've got ropesight, you have to ring by numbers, that is, knowing which bell you're after at each blow, which is learnable for plain courses of a method, but not really practical for touches.

Raising and lowering

Around this stage of learning (although this may vary) you'll learn to raise and lower a bell, at first by itself, and then in peal, that is, ringing in rounds while changing the amount that the bells swing.

Plain courses of a method

One you can ring plain hunt reliably, you'll next be ready to start ringing methods, usually starting with Plain Bob (or sometimes Grandsire), which are largely similar to Plain Hunt but dodging when the treble leads.

Touches of a method

After plain courses come touches, involving bobs and singles, in which you will sometimes do different things at lead ends. Once you can ring touches reliable, you can go on to quarter peals and peals.

Further methods

When you can ring touches of your first method, you can then go on to learn the lines for further methods, including their calls (bobs and singles).

Plain methods

The first few methods you learn will normally be plain methods, in which the treble plain hunts.


Some people find that principles are harder to learn than methods, since there is no distinct hunt bell to keep yourself in place by. Other than ``Original'' (plain hunt), Stedman is the principle you're most likely to encounter, followed by Erin.

Treble Bob methods

Around the time of being able to do Plain Bob reliably, you could start to learn to treble for Treble Bob methods, and subsequently to ring inside for them.

Surprise methods

These are a subset of Treble Bob methods; they are typically the most complex. This is as far as I got before I lost interest (it was potentially still interesting, but my striking wasn't good enough for the people running ringing to let me go on to further methods).

I'm told that to ring the more advanced methods, you need to learn the whole grid, not just your own line. But that may have just been someone trying to dissuade me from trying, because of my striking not being to their satisfaction; I seemed to be able to keep going OK the one time I was allowed to ring such a method, despite not knowing it as a grid. I expect different people do it different ways, just like anything else.


Not written; I didn't get this far.


Not written; I didn't get this farp.

John C. G. Sturdy
[John's home] Last modified: Sun Jun 10 22:12:57 GMT Daylight Time 2007