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I had been banging my head against the wall trying to come up with something to write about, and then,… YESSSS!, an idea! At times like this I cast about for something I’ve already written, and the head-banging reminded me of this piece about the near impossibility of describing my hobby: change ringing.

A couple of years ago I wrote an article for Encore about the bells of Kalamazoo College and Jeff Smith, who brought change ringing to Kalamazoo. In the process of writing a sidebar describing the experience of change ringing, I wrote this “first draft” before I got serious about the facts.

Change Ringing is Hard Enough

The ringing room in Kalamazoo College’s Stetson Chapel

Never mind trying to explain it. I tend not to, claiming, “nothing really,” when asked what I’m doing this weekend, as if it were a guilty secret—but really because of the staggering number of things that can be misunderstood about it. I always end up sounding pedantic, “No it’s not a carillon. No, we don’t give concerts. No, your church does not have that kind of bells.”

It’s musical, but musical talent is not required. It doesn’t produce tunes, but it’s not random clanging, either. We practice regularly, but never exactly perform. It’s called an exercise, but it’s not aerobic or even particularly muscle-building. It’s done on church bells, but for many it is not an act of piety. You can also ring changes on handbells, but that’s nothing like a handbell choir. It is based on complicated mathematical concepts, yet to ring, all you need to be able to do is count your place and memorize a single line of numbers. It’s a paradox: much repetition is required to generate a constantly changing series of notes.

The language is full of simple words familiar in other contexts, like swimming or dating or baseball: single, home, surprise, wrong, backstroke, hunt. Confusing to the beginner, but once you understand the basic rules and techniques, the lingo becomes second nature. The only challenges are memory and stamina… and explaining what you do.

It’s like telling people you frequently practice waking sleeping babies—on a purely recreational basis. They always ask why.

It’s not like playing the organ, it’s more like marathon chess, although I’ve never done either. It’s a little bit like each ringer, rope, and bell together form a piston in a machine, moving up and down while others do the same. Each piston need only be aware of its own job, and yet working together seamlessly, they produce the sound of changes. Except, technically, changes aren’t sound but what happens between two sets of notes.

If I said ringing London Surprise was like waxing an alabaster pineapple, but ringing call changes was like picking fleas off a dog, where would we be then? Which is more like a square dance? Mostly it’s like knitting and dancing and soccer rolled into one. If you can picture what that looks like, please tell me.

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As a former technical writer, I’m not done trying to explain this. Meanwhile, there are more precisely informative (if still confusing) explanations on the Internet. For example, What is Change Ringing?

Kalamazoo TB Major

Image from the Visual Method Archive.

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