Friday, January 30, 2009

What If?

Last night at practice I found myself once again in a frustrating place. I have had enough exposure to experienced ringers to see how they ring and all that did was outline intimately how far I am from that level of ringing. Nothing comes with ease, there is no fluidity, no relaxation in my ringing. There is plenty cutting short of full strokes and turtleing up. No gentle rise and fall of the rope, just overpull and check. And once in a while, that fleeting knowledge that that last thing I did just there, that was perfect, but I don't know exactly what I did or how to repeat it.

Now, as a learner, there is an assumption that, well, you're going to suck. And in bellringing, the warning you will get from the start is that it may well be a very long time before you don't, so don't get discouraged or try to rush yourself. Now, this may be true, and it may be fair warning, but your subconscious can really run wild with that, and before you know it you are perfectly happy to be doing poorly because you have given yourself a pass on having to be responsible for improvement. You don't have to be good, you're a learner. No one expects you to make great progress, so why beat yourself up over it too much?

It is clear that our minds can affect our bodies. Modern medicine grudgingly admits that mental state can negatively affect health. People suffering mental stress, anxiety or depression are more likely to succumb to infections they might have otherwise have fought off. They take longer to heal. Some research even suggests that there may be a mental or emotional component to some cancers.

What about the other side of the coin? The medical community is even less willing to admit to the positive power of the mind on the body, but how many times have you heard of breakthroughs in healing due to mood enhancing therapies and positive imagery?

Where I'm going with all this is that the other day I had a thought: what if I just went to the tower and rang as if I already could? What if I parrotted the experienced ringers who moved with ease and confidence? What could I do if I pretended to be one of them, stopped thinking about how to ring and just rang? So I tried it.

Um, it worked.

Not 100%, mind you, but it sure took my ringing up a notch or two. I rang rounds pretty darned well on 5, 6 and 7 bells, and I think it worked because I stopped consciously trying to remember all the stuff I was supposed to do and just did it instead. Hot damn, I think I may be on to something here!

I'm also not saying there wasn't vast room for improvement, that my rope handling was perfect and that my striking was spot on, but I was really ringing with the band instead of generally around them, which is where I have been.

The greatest compliment I got that evening was when I went to where my husband was sitting and reading while practice was going on and asked him if he had heard me ringing so well. He apologized because he didn't hear when I was ringing! And that, folks, is what its all about.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

In Which I Get Ahead of Myself

Janice's comment on my last post made me realize that I need to do a basic bell intro here. I got a much better graphic than I can make from the Central Council website.

This is how a bell normally hangs. For change ringing you start with the bell "mouth" up. Hence the raising. Now, as you ring, the stay swings around with the bell, and comes into contact with the slider, which slides (duh!) to the end of the runner board. The next swing of the bell brings the other side of the stay into contact with the other side of the slider, sliding it over to the other side of the runner. The slider will only go so far, and when it is at its farthest, the bell is over the balance. Setting a bell means gently bringing the bell over the balance fully, leaving the bell mouth up, stay against slider at the end of its path. Stays are made of ash, just like baseball bats, and the reason is that ash will break if necessary, sacrificing itself to save more important parts of the structure. Sliders are made of oak, and are not meant to break. Overpulling can cause you to bang the stay against the slider, and banging the stay can result in broken stays. But as with so many things in life, just because you can doesn't mean you should. So you try not to bang the stay and try to learn to ring without breaking any. Here is a good page with animations of bells ringing so you get an even better idea of how it works. The middle link in the top row called "swing bell" particularly illustrates the action of the stay on the slider.

Ok, so the video below is of me raising a bell. Starting from the raised or up position means that when the band is ready, ringing can commence immediately. At the beginning of the video, you see me take the tail in my left hand and gently pull the sally. If the bell is indeed down, it will rock gently back and forth, causing the sally to bob up and down like in the video. You never assume the bell is down, so if I pulled and it was up, the bell would "come over", or, start its downswing. So that I am not screwed at that point, I have the tail in hand, and can stay in control of the bell. Then I put energy into the bell so it will swing higher and higher until it finally can be set to make it ready for ringing. One day I will learn to "raise in peal". That is when the whole band raises all the bells at once, in order, like rounds but more chaotic.

I hope this helps clarify a few basics for now. I'll try to remember to fill in background info in the future.

In Which I Need To Lose Weight

Just to show how dedicated a blogger I am, I present the following video in which all vanity is abandoned. This is the first time I successfully raised our tenor without help. Mind you, I had just raised the other nine bells, that's what I was practicing, so I was already pooped out when I got to this, the last bell in our ring of 10. I thought I was working this too hard, but it seems I was just raising it quickly.

And to Lyn, I had permission for this practice only to set the bells I raised, so I could practice that as well. But enough with the disclaimers, it's time for the show!

Saturday, January 24, 2009


Today I went to practice in Marietta and redeemed myself. A bit. Lets start at the beginning.

Are we all sitting comfortably? Good.

Ringing a bell is very much like I would imagine having a conversation with Helen Keller would have been. I'm talking now about ringing solo, not with other ringers. That adds a whole new world of sight, sound and anxiety. No, just me and a bell, talking with my hands, being spoken to through my hands.

First comes the gross physical movements. The tail takes you up, you pull it down, catch the sally and let it take you then down it goes as well. Lather, rinse, repeat. You can only get so far on this, even though this much is a lot to learn to do without getting tangled in the rope or, well, getting the person next to you tangled in the rope. I found the balance on the hand stroke and then on the tail stroke. This is where you have rung the bell to where the mouth ends straight back up. With the bell in this position you can leave it a good long while, let it go over and set it, or you can pull it again and keep ringing. It is a great place to know how to get to if you are like me and constantly speed up because you can do big slow down corrections here. And to do this takes practice so that you don't overpull and bang the stay against the slider, so it is an important place to know how to ring to. It is not, however, where you ring to or from most of the time.

Enter floating. This is where when you ring below the balance you maximize the amount of time the bell has to end its upswing before gravity kicks in and the bell moves into its downswing. This is for when you want to ring faster, which is lots of the time, but you still want control. Little slow down corrections. Even minute. Let's abuse a sine wave with my mad grafix skillz.
Where A is the balance (first at hand stroke, then at tail) and B in the middle is mid swing. For this very professional graphic, we are going to go back and forth and back and forth between A's to illustrate as many swings of the bell as you like. If point C is where you need the movement of the bell to end (as in to speed up), you can see that 1) you will have to keep putting energy in to each stroke to keep the bell going back to C or else the bell will fall faster and faster like a pendulum until it comes to rest at point B, and 2) you have to really finesse C for every millisecond you can get out of it. That's the float. Any pressure you put on the rope or the sally will affect it. So we're talking really fine touch. Which I ain't got yet, but I have the idea, therefore I am dangerous, people, dangerous I tell you.

I learned the other day when I was practicing raising that the main key to ringing bells is to handle them as delicately as possible. Let them ring themselves as much as possible, only putting in just the right amount of energy (at the right place) or else you develop the bad tendency to ring through a series of overpulls and ropechecks which completely destroy control and make you work too damn hard. All those Brits who are celebrating their 9 zillionth peals don't get there by making this any harder than they have to.

So there's the bit about floating. I don't even know if it is a true technical bell term or just a description, but for the blog, it's a term I'll use. Meanwhile, I'm tops at making whatever I do harder than it has to be. It's part newbie, part exuberance, part panic and 100% me.

My ringing is getting better. Today I rung a sad and ragged tenor to rounds on 8 bells and a respectable first attempt smack in the middle, 4th bells place in rounds on 6 bells. May not sound like much to those who are composing spliced surprises in their spare time, but for me it is mondo big. Keeping the mental comprehension a few steps ahead of the physical skill acquisition seems to be ideal for progress in ringing. If you already know what you need to do, the doing of it is just a matter of time. Oh, yeah, and practice. Otherwise I'll just be doing the equivalent of screaming at Helen Keller. And I just can't have that.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Crash! The Learning Curve pt 1

I have found stupid. Do you know where that is? It is the place in the learning curve you hit right about the time you think you've got it. Whatever it is. And right after that special moment of triumph, you hit stupid.

When I went back to college after being out of school for 10 years, I had to relearn how to learn. In many respects I had never really learned before; you start out as a little kid and you don't think about it, you don't analyze it, you just do it. Learning is what you are, and all the way through school and into the workplace (at least at first) you are still just doing it, sometimes well, sometimes not, but usually without thinking about the process. So after working for 10 years I went back to school, and there I was forced to pay attention to the process because I had been out of that loop for a decade. Since then I have continued learning, starting Japanese lessons after I hit 40, taking up knitting in 2003, and throughout all these endeavors the process is the same.

In my process I have to encounter the new concept/technique then sleep on it before I get any feel for it. When I next encounter it, my brain or muscles or whatever have some memory of it and I'm better at it and can progress. After a short while I feel like I am gaining some control over the material, and my comfort level increases proportionately. I am then able to successfully apply the material, and my confidence level increases. But before true integration occurs, I start losing it. Everything. Eventually I recover, and at that point I usually achieve a true integration of the material, whatever it is. This happened to me in knitting, and surprised me, because I had forgotten how integral a part of my process this was. Now I'm hitting that point in bell ringing. Even though I shouldn't be surprised, hitting stupid always comes as such a shock. And with the public nature of bellringing it has been particularly humbling.

Several weeks ago at a St. Lukes practice (my tower) I was allowed to attempt ringing rounds. That means bells 1,2,3,4 and 5 ringing in that order, over and over again. Sounds simple, eh? Not so much. But the chance to ring on my own with the band was exhiliarating, and after a few botched attempts, and with good advice to count (I was 5 in that order, so 12345, 12345 is where I had to ring) I actually got it, surprising myself (and, apparently, everyone else). The next Saturday was practice at St. James, and I had high hopes to go there and be all impressive.

Crash, in bell terms, is what happens when one bell rings on top of another bell. I am explaining this now so you will know exactly what I excelled in at that practice. I could not control squat. I had not warmed up (and I am starting to think I need a minimum of about 2 hours warm up before I can ring anything like in my place) and I kept crashing into other bells and got so off that I ended up on a different stroke than everyone else. After which I sat down and listened to the rest of the ringers actually ring. (My initial theory at that point, but which has since been proved wrong, is that there were 6 bells and I can only count to 5) Anyway, matters were not helped by a small scheduling glitch which also had 2 people with Highland pipes practicing in the sanctuary just outside. Not to mention the drummer with the full drum kit who kept noodling on the drums. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in that tower that day, and as much as I'd like to blame my crappy ringing on the bagpipes and on the guy who thought he was John Bonham, it was honestly me just hitting the stupid portion of my learning curve.

So much for being all impressive.

I like to look at it this way, though. I am progressing. It is a process, and I'm in it, and I have to accept every stage of it, even the embarrassing parts, otherwise what will I have learned from them? That I suck? I don't, I'm just riding the low point of that curve at the moment. I am on the verge of integration. But I have to admit: bagpipes? They do not help.

And so, for your viewing and listening pleasure, here is a short movie from that practice. You will thank me to know I am not ringing in this one, this is some real change ringing. The method was Oxford, and this is what is referred to as a short touch. I'll get all technical and chatty about that later. See if you can hear the bagpipes cut in. Or rather, see if you can hear all the bells through the bagpipes cutting in. Fun!

A Short Touch of Oxford Minor

Ringing in the New President

New York's Trinity Church will make a peal attempt in honor of the inauguration of President Barak Obama today. There was a brief spot on NPR yesterday, and I've put the link below. I'm working on raising and lowering, but I'm at work today, so more tomorrow.

Meanwhile, listen.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Great Feature on Change Ringing

The folks at FLYP and the Washington Ringing Society have put together an awesome production. Check it out.

Change You Can Hear

And coming soon: yet another way in which bagpipes can be annoying. Enjoy!

p.s.Tsarina, I forgot to set up comments to email me before you found me so I can't reply, but I promise here and now to do my best to use this blog to make you drool over bells at least as much as you make me drool over your designs.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Finding Balance, or how I stopped worrying and learned to love the box

When I was just starting out learning to ring, I stood on a box. I thought this was because I was short, which I am, and it didn't occur to me that I should not be on a box. Later, I was told to ditch the box because it was time I learned to stretch more. I felt like I had graduated or something, and I proudly stood flat on the floor and let the rope stretch me more and more. This made sense to me, because I'm not the only short woman ringing in my tower, and I had started wondering why I was the only one on a box and felt kind of dorky to be on it.

I had a problem, though. I was just starting to ring alone, that is without my teacher having a hand on the rope at all, just me with him close by. And I was having a tough time controlling my speed. Well, this is not a shock, I'm new to the whole ringing alone thing, and I kinda suck at it in that learning curve way. But I was getting really frustrated because if someone told me to slow down, I couldn't. I could slow my hand stroke, hell, that sucker could sit in the balance all day, but no matter how I tried the whole show went right back out of whack.

Then someone asked me if I was getting to the balance on the tail stroke. Huh? I couldn't ever remember anything that felt like that, so I began letting out rope, and letting out rope, and letting out rope. I ran out of tail, and still didn't have a clue what they were talking about. Surely I was doing it, I had been ringing tail stroke since I began. But you know, I had wondered about the times I had seen ringers setting the bells on the tail stroke. Even though I had never set a bell on the handstroke, I could see how it would be done. I had pulled too hard and felt the bell go over the balance, and I knew if I eased it over at that point the bell would stand and I could walk away. I realized I had never even felt a tail stroke go over, and that was the ticket.

So I am back on the box, and again, I feel like I've graduated or something. I took no time at all to scare the hell out of myself feeling the tail stroke go to the balance point and a bit over (it feels so precarious!), but now I can tell that I will be able to slow both strokes and actually control the bell. The scary feeling is the same feeling I got when I first became responsible for the hand stroke. It's fast and a little out of control, and I get a real sense of potential danger, but I know that I'll get it now because with practice you learn how to work with the bell. And that seems to be the whole trick, doesn't it? I keep having to remind myself of it, but the bell is going to do what it is going to do in the macro, I'm only here to make the micro adjustments.

This time the box doesn't make me feel like a big dork. My height is a fixed thing, and barring weathers' effect on the rope, the rope is a fixed thing as well. If a box is what it is going to take to get me to the next level, I'll embrace it.

Now, just for fun, here is a pic of me with our tenor.