The Ringing Learning Curves

“District Practice, December 22nd, Uptonville St John. Grade 5 ringers and above only.”

Fortunately, notices like this never appear in The Ringing World. Ringing at most towers is open to all standards and is largely self regulating. Turn up at a tower, tell them what you can ring and chances are you will be invited to catch hold. Exclusivity is fortunately very rare.

Some time ago the Central Council considered introducing a grading system for bellringers along the lines of that used when learning musical instruments. Grade 1 might be achieved after mastering bell-handling, Grade 2 on being able to ring Bob Doubles inside, Grade 3 following the move into Surprise Minor, etc. The idea was shelved, not least because it raised the spectre of notices like the fictional one above, formally excluding ringers based on their ability.

I am often asked what it is about ringing that interests me so much. Apart from the social side, I explain (to people’s surprise) that I am stimulated by the fact that the technical complexity of change ringing can be extended to the very limits of the mind’s capacity. For instance exceptionally complex peals of spliced can require feats of memory and mental processing which are unmatched in any other activities that are classed as hobbies. The range of difficulty from the first steps on change ringing’s ladder, to the higher steps when the ground starts to fade into the distance below, is very great indeed.

Last week, I introduced this series of articles by posing some questions about ringing – questions driven by some of the conflicts gracing the letters page of The Ringing World in recent months. A lot of the answers seemed to stem from the differences between groups of ringers at different experience levels, but without the Central Council’s aborted grading system it is difficult to find the words to explain those differences. The words ‘experienced’ and ‘ability’ are not precise enough to identify exactly where on ringing’s learning curve someone is.

One of the ringers at my local tower said that not only did the learning curve look steep from where she was standing, but it almost seemed to be two different curves – the curve she was on, and the curve ‘experts’ were on. Jumping onto the other curve looked too big a leap. After some thought I came to the conclusion that there are in fact three curves, with distinct characteristics, and considerable barriers between them. And it is these three curves that lead me to my own classification system that I will use from now on and spend the rest of this article explaining!

Figure 1: graph illustrating the various zones

In the graph in Figure 1 the scale along the bottom represents the number of ringers engaged in a particular level of ringing, and the scale up the left represents the technical difficulty of the ringing undertaken. I have split the learning curve into three sections and called them the Blue, Red and Black zones. Each zone therefore represents a body of ringers, and the technical difficulty of the ringing they do is as follows.

(Note that the scale isn’t linear. What I call the Blue zone should actually be 90% of the scale, with the Red zone a further 9%, but I have spread it all out a little to make the graph easier to understand.)

Blue Zone

The Blue zone goes from learning to handle a bell through to ringing methods inside. It doesn’t quite get as far as ringing a surprise method inside but includes methods that are formulaic or based on ringing by the treble, such as Kent. In terms of the ringing population this is generally considered to represent about 90% of ringers, possibly even more. The majority of ‘Blue’ ringers do their ‘Blue’ ringing at their own practice night and for Sunday service. Some will be at District practices but the ringing experience in the Blue zone is largely very local, and with touch length extending to quarter peals but rarely beyond.

Red Zone

The Red zone may be the ambition of those in the Blue zone, although the ‘nursery slopes’ of the Blue zone keep the majority of our bells ringing on Sunday mornings. (Skiers may be spotting the inspiration for this grading system at this point!) The first rung on the Red ladder is about Cambridge Minor inside and the top rung is ringing simple methods on 12. In terms of the ringing population, I think the Red zone covers at least a further 9%, taking Blue and Red together to 99% of ringers. If there are 40,000 or so ringers in the country, all but about 200 are covered by these two zones.

Black Zone

Finally, and this may surprise many, we have the Black curve which starts at Bristol Maximus and it goes more steeply up than either of the other two curves. Most ringing in the Black zone is done in peals and at a very small number of 12-bell practices in major cities (plus Towcester). There are not many people practising the Exercise at this level – I suggest it is as few as 200.


The key thing to note from the curves is that it is not just one curve gradually rising from left to right, but a set of three curves with two discontinuities representing barriers to progression that ringers hit. Jumping from one curve to the next is easier said than done, and this isn’t just because of increased difficulty at that stage. Here is why I think these discontinuities exist.

Blue to Red

The key feature that marks the transition from Blue to Red is the way in which methods are rung and the introduction of the concept of ringing by blue line rather than by simple method structure. Up to this point the methods rung can be learned from watching the treble, or following a diagram of the order in which work is done. Some methods such as Kent can be learned by the blue line, but are really just formulaic, i.e. you follow a regular path interrupted by treble-induced alterations.

But there comes a time, and for most people it is on learning Cambridge Minor, that you have to learn to ring in a different way, to ring by following a memorised blue line. Not only is this much harder to do, but you need to ring with a much more experienced band in order to have a chance of success. Without going to other practices, many ringers will not be able to make this jump because there aren’t sufficient people to help them at their own tower, or there isn’t a conductor in the band experienced enough to keep people right in harder methods. Learning methods also involves quite a bit of solitary work learning blue lines, etc. For many people this ‘homework’ is very boring and makes progression more difficult.

Finally to go from the Blue to Red zone one’s basic handling and bell control needs to be good. Learning methods is hard enough without having to concentrate on the physical action of ringing the bell. Unfortunately a great number of ringers are taught by teachers who are not strict on correcting handling faults, and this stifles many ringers’ progress. Ropesight is also very important, and very difficult to teach.

Getting out of this situation and across the barrier needs a combination of some of the following factors: ambition, opportunity, a lot of leisure time, practice, ringing parents, a good teacher. However the combination of the increased difficulty and the decreased opportunity still combine to make this barrier significant, and I believe that at least 90% of ringers do not cross it.

Red to Black

Those that do cross the barrier into the Red zone discover a huge range of variety and opportunity. There are books full of surprise minor methods to learn, the standard eight surprise major is a great target to aim for, whilst ringing on higher numbers brings fresh challenges of ropesight and delights of sound. Most peals published in The Ringing World fall in this zone and virtually all District and Association practices cater for this zone. On visiting other towers a ringer in the Red zone is marked out as being a bit more experienced and will most likely be seen as an asset and welcomed back.

So why is it that there is a barrier at the top end of this zone? Why can’t we just keep ringing more difficult things? How is it that someone who can ring Stedman Cinques and Cambridge Maximus can possibly be said to have hit a ceiling?

I remember when I first went along to 12-bell practices at St Martin’s Birmingham after school I had learned Cambridge Maximus and rang it, followed by Superlative Maximus the following month. When at the next practice I asked to ring Yorkshire, there was much amusement – no one else knew it. I found out that the progression in such circles was not the route I had experienced on eight bells, but that Bristol came after Cambridge, with nothing in between. Bristol Maximus seemed a different league of difficulty – a big jump from anything that had gone before.

In terms of the well-known standard methods on higher numbers, there isn’t much between Cambridge/Stedman and Bristol that is regularly rung, so there is no natural build up. You might find some Londinium-above methods (particularly true through the 60s, 70s and 80s perhaps) but they are getting quite rare. Step up to Bristol or bust.

To get more experience ringing on 12 you need to ring with other good 12-bell ringers. 12-bell ringing needs a degree of rhythm, striking ability and ropesight that you don’t need so much on fewer bells, or at least it doesn’t get so obviously exposed. To ring well on higher numbers needs an instinctive ability that cannot be taught, and only partially comes with experience – you either have it or you don’t. If you don’t have it then you don’t get asked in the peals that might help you progress, you ring less at those practices where you could learn your more complex ringing, and you hit the barrier to entry.

Quite a bit of this barrier is also caused by lack of opportunity and where you live. The opportunities to ring complex things outside the established centres of 12-bell ringing are few, and this problem only gets greater as more and more difficult things are rung and practised. This lack of opportunity is in some way addressed by the fact that there are anomalies to the curves, i.e. there are things rung on lower numbers and on handbells that are as hard if not harder than methods I am suggesting are in the Black zone.

So in summary, the step from Blue to Red is caused by a change in the way we learn to ring our early methods, and the way in which we have to ring more complicated methods. This is combined with finding the opportunity and help to make this step. The step from Red to Black is slightly different in that whilst there is again a difficulty leap without a natural bridge, there is also a need for inherent ability to cross the barrier, as well as a lack of opportunity outside certain ringing centres. Age is also a factor. Few people who progress through the Black zone learned to ring when they were older (in fact I can’t think of a single example), and the transition to Red is certainly found easier by younger minds.

Finally, ringing is at heart a social activity. We ring in groups, and often arrange ringing as much for the social side as the ringing itself. Politics in ringing is rife, but usually bands ring together in harmony. This makes it very difficult for socially-challenged people to progress in ringing. A less socially-able person will have to be exceptionally talented to be afforded the same opportunities as someone who can make friends with the peal organisers or the movers and shakers in their area.

This may all be very interesting, but is it important? I think it is because these groupings of ringers, their different training and information needs, the way in which the ringers practising in the different zones interact with each other, and the way ringers perceive those in zones above them, all have an influence on the problems I introduced last week. Next week I will start to put my new classification system into practice.


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Central Council of Church Bell Ringers