If you are fortunate enough to live within reasonable travelling distance of one of the relatively few centres of excellence in 12 bell ringing then the task of achieving good striking on 12 is considerably easier. For the rest of us it is a far more difficult task.
Before looking at the challenges posed by 12 bell ringing it is worth considering the skills we use to strike well on lower numbers. I will take it as read that a good level of bell control has been achieved. I would suggest that the main skills are:
The ability to place one’s bell in the right place by listening to it and making adjustments until it is striking correctly relative to the other bells.
The ability to see which bell you should be following and the relative position of other bells by their ropes.
This starts with the “blue line” but can and should involve a great deal more.
Essentially the same as speed, I think! The realisation that in any given piece of ringing there should only be three speeds. Quicker for hunting down, slower for hunting up and a kind of neutral speed for lying still in places or at the front or back.
I think most ringers use a combination of some or all of the above skills to achieve good striking on lower numbers of bells.
I would contend that to achieve good ringing on 12 involves using the same skills but perhaps in a different balance. In particular listening and ropesight become much more difficult. Listening because there are more bells to listen to, and the intervals between them are shorter. The ringing sounds quicker although in practice it may not be. The problem is often compounded when there are a number of ringers in the same piece of ringing all of whom are struggling to get their bells in the right place. A further complicating factor can be the internal acoustics at some 12 bell towers. In many 12 bell towers some bells, often the lighter ones, are difficult to hear. It is worth taking some time and trouble to try and improve the acoustics as only then is it likely that inexperienced 12 bell ringers will be able to improve.
This is more difficult for two reasons. Firstly as with listening, the sheer number of ropes and secondly the differentials between the small and heavy bells. We are all familiar with the tenor’s rope being in front of the treble but the bell striking after the treble. If you ring by ropesight alone you will be in serious trouble.
From the above it should be evident that the skills which serve us well on lower numbers are less reliable, or need refining to ring well on higher numbers. I am a firm believer that this can be done although it does require effort and application. I think that, with practice, it is possible to develop and refine our skills to ring well on 12 and would like to suggest a few ways of doing so.
Although more difficult on 12 just as important as on lower numbers. I suspect that there are a large number of ringers who struggle to hear their bell all of the time when ringing on 12. I will freely admit that even after n x 100 peals on 12 bells there are times when I can’t hear my bell. In my view however even the least experienced 12 bell ringer should be trying to hear their bell all of the time. There are occasions when it is easier than others. For example when ringing rounds at the start or end of a touch. That is the reason why I often ring plenty of rounds at the beginning and end of touches. It is to allow people the time to hear their bells and settle into a rhythm. Assuming the rest of the bells are more or less in the right place you should be able to hear your bell. If you are still struggling, divide the ringing up into three groups of four bells and listen most intently to the four bells that you are in, front, middle or back. Similarly in touches you may lose track of your bell but there are rows or groups of rows where it is easier to hear your bell. The obvious ones are roll ups, which can be on big or small bells, or other well known changes like back rounds. If you are on a small bell and you are striking over a large bell if you can’t hear your bell you are probably too close! Try leaving a bigger and bigger gap until you can hear your bell. It should then be obvious if you are too wide! If you are at the beginning or end of a change it should also be easier to hear your bell and so concentrate extra hard on listening at those points. With concentration and practice you should be able to develop your listening skills on 12 so that the times when you can hear your bell become more frequent and the times when you can’t less so.
This is closely allied to listening and speed. So close that I struggle to understand the difference. No doubt someone can enlighten me. All good ringing involves rhythm. 12 bell ringing simply has a different rhythm. It is accepted wisdom that to achieve good 12 bell ringing back strokes should be held up and hand strokes pushed in as compared to ringing on lower numbers. This helps to explain why there is emphasis placed on people holding up their back strokes at the pull off. It helps to establish the correct rhythm from the beginning of a piece of ringing. I would suggest that you can refine your rhythm skills by listening to good 12 bell ringing either while ringing in it or by listening while sitting out. If this is not immediately available to you in the tower(!) listen to recordings. There are numerous CDs of good 12 bell ringing or there are examples on the internet. You need to try and internalise the rhythm so that it becomes second nature. When ringing on 12 the back bells are sometimes referred to as The Rhythm Section and in some methods, typically Stedman, composers will deliberately arrange the back bells to course in familiar patterns, e.g. Tittums. If you listen to the patterns of sound made by the back bells it will assist you to keep in the rhythm. Rhythm isn’t confined to the back bells of course, other groups of bells also produce recognisable “tunes” but the back bells are normally the easiest to hear.
This starts with knowing the “blue line” but should involve a lot more. The more we know about a method and how it fits together the easier it is to keep right and the more we can predict where to meet certain bells. This reduces our dependence on “ropesight”. Obvious examples of knowledge in addition to the “blue line” are knowing where to pass the treble or to dodge with it, for example in Cambridge. If we know where we work with the treble we don’t need “ropesight” at that point to find the bell we should be with. The example of when to pass or dodge with your course bell in Yorkshire is another instance of method knowledge reducing our dependence on “ropesight”. One which I have always found particularly useful is knowing that your first blow in a place when making places down in Cambridge is always over the treble. This is particularly useful in 9/10 places down when you are faced with a sea (or should that be see!) of ropes below you. Knowing that the first blow is over the treble helps to stabilise you in the right place. There are similar nuggets of knowledge for all methods although I am not clever enough to know them.
Allied to method knowledge is that of coursing order. In plain methods (i.e. Grandsire, Plain Bob, Little Bob, Erin) this can be extremely helpful. If you know who you are coursing and who is coursing you it provides you with a framework to help you keep in the right place. Keep between your course bell and after bell and you will not be far wrong.
Ropesight is probably the skill which we use on lower numbers which is the least helpful on higher numbers. One trick I use which you might find helpful is to count the ropes from the back of the change rather than the front. For example if you are in ninth’s place rather than counting eight ropes from the front count three above you, it is much easier. Admittedly this is retrospective but you can still use the information gained to adjust your next blow if necessary.
Essentially by developing our other skills, listening, method structure and rhythm we are reducing our dependence on the least useful skill “ropesight”.
I present these thoughts for your consideration. You may find all or some parts of them useful. You may not. You may have other thoughts which are different, and better than mine. If you do please share them.
The Ringing World, December 21/28, 2012, pages 1336 and 1339