Sunday, April 5, 2009

Tenor Banger

So I am concentrating on tenoring right now. It has been extremely satisfying so far. I have been concentrating on perfecting striking and keeping an even time, and I think I am getting it. The interesting thing that is happening is that when you remove the responsibility of moving a bell and just ring constantly in the same place you really learn all about the stroke and begin to understand exactly where your bell is and what it takes to keep it there.

It would be much easier if I could see my bell as I ring it. But one of the challenges a ringer has is that you don't get to see your instrument, you play it remotely via your rope. So you are functionally blind to your instrument, and (except for ropesight, which I am learning has limited usefulness) I don't miss it a bit. It is like I am developing a dialogue with my bell by learning to understand what the rope is telling me. Each portion of the stroke has its own limitations, and its own advantages, and learning these really helps develop control and striking. I can learn a lot by carefully listening with my ears and with my hands. The most important thing I've learned so far is when to stop overanalyzing a fraction of the stroke and just ring, and when it's time to listen particularly to a problem area. I don't always know how to respond, but I'm starting to have a better idea of what it is telling me.

How many times did Anne Sullivan have to make the sign for water into Helen Kellers' hand before she connected the "word" with the feeling of the cold liquid rushing over her hand and understood that language was happening? How much longer did it take for her to understand the ramifications of what language is and its usefulness in communication? It is very much like that, feeling the rope go slack at the wrong times and understanding that I have either anticipated a stroke or allowed the bell to fall without controlling my rope. Understanding the potential energy when the bell "floats" between swings, and how that is different from standing the bell on its head at balance and how that will affect timing and striking. Where one is more useful than the other and vice versa. Feeling my rope sign to my hand the answers to the questions of my learners' stroke.

Tenoring also allows me to get a bit zen with it. Finding a rhythm, finding the physical input to maintain it, then repeating the motions over and over; remembering to complete all the steps of rope handling to their fullest. Tail stroke long, long, then snap. Catch the sally, let it rise but not too much, throw it back to the floor and don't forget to let go (or the bell reminds you by tearing it from your grasp) and be ready for the tailstroke. Keeping all the motions complete, smooth, it becomes a form of meditation. Hearing changes called but knowing I won't be affected by them, I let them flow over me and begin to integrate them on a much deeper level than before. If the ringer achieves good form, good striking will happen. Don't try to force it, don't try to control striking, just mind the rope and it comes. Before you know it, I am one with the bell and the striking is good. Then, and only then, I notice that I'm ringing well with the band, but I let that pass by as well refusing the distraction. I'm not looking at ropes, mine or anyone elses - I'm not looking at anything in particular. Through peripheral vision, it is all coming in, but in a gentle wash, rhythmically, like ocean waves against the shore. See? Told you I go all zen.

But that's it, isn't it? If you're going to ring the bell in the same place for 15 minutes straight or for 15 hours, it doesn't matter, does it? It is all joy, even in the lenten tones we play during this season. It is a sonic communication with God; as His agent, to His people, calling them to prayer; with the other ringers, in companionship; with the bells themselves, helping them express themselves, proclaiming with every tone the messages of their inscriptions, the intention of their makers, their memory of those who rang them before you. There is a richness to ringing tenor, a contemplative sort of prayer which could be lost in all the physical effort and mental busyness of method ringing. I won't be satisfied with it forever, but for now I am glad I can experience it.

One of the reasons I write this is because I am, as you know, journaling my thoughts on ringing as I learn, sharing them with my family and with my friends who are interested in ringing. But also because I know that in some towers tenor ringers, people who never ring anything but tenor and that for their entire ringing careers, are sometimes looked down on. They have been referred to as lacking something because they never want to move the bell around or try method ringing. Maybe, though, just maybe, they are tenoring not from a lack of drive, but from a deeper appreciation of tenoring than you may have developed. I don't know. What I do know is what I have found. And because of it, I know that I will always enjoy tenoring and will never see it as onerous or lacking in challenge.

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