Catch, pull and hold on!

Ringing terminology is seductive. The more we use it, the less we are aware that to the uninitiated (including those we teach) it can mean something completely different. The worst case is when the intended meaning overlaps the perceived meaning.


A good example is ‘catch’ as in ‘catch the sally’. Experienced ringers use the phrase without thinking about it. It is just a verbal label for the complex, semi-automatic action that starts with our hands on the tail end and ends with them on the sally. But when we use that phrase as teachers, our pupils don’t hear it as a label for an action they already know, because they haven’t yet learnt it. They hear the phrase as an instruction telling them what to do, and they interpret the words in terms of their everyday meanings.

Outside of ringing, ‘catch’ conjures up images of a coat being snagged on barbed wire, a fish taking the bait, or a cat pouncing on a mouse. None of these convey the desired action where the hands move up at the correct time and speed for them to close smoothly around the sally as they continue to move up with it.

So if we tell our pupils to ‘catch’ the sally, should we be surprised to see hands springing up to grab it, or hovering at chest height motionless ready to snatch it as it passes?

The benefit of introducing the transfer action with a stationary rope is being able to take the pupil through it in slow motion, with time to emphasise the smoothness of the action. It’s a shame to lose that by using conflicting language when the pupil makes the difficult step of doing it at full speed with a live rope.

Far better to use language that conveys the intended feel of the action. The hands should ‘rise towards’ the sally, ‘meet’ the sally, ‘close round’ the sally. If the timing isn’t quite right, the hands need to ‘rise earlier’ and ‘arrive higher on the sally’ (or vice versa).

So let’s leave all talk of ‘catching’ for stories about the riverbank or the mouse hole.

To Pull

My dictionary defines this word as ‘to exert force upon’. The problem with this word is twofold. First, learners often arrive with a preconceived idea that bell ringing requires pulling hard and possibly even leaving the floor – a replacement perhaps for going to the gym. Maybe this is suggested by the media or adverts for Mars bars. Secondly, ‘pull’ implies that the concentration and effort is a downward movement – pulling the rope down. We forget that controlling the backstroke and sally as they rise is just as important.

We need to emphasise that to control the rope and therefore the bell we need to keep tension on the rope for as long as we can.

Only by doing this can we engage with the bell – i.e. ‘feel it’ and this is what we are trying to teach. We are trying to teach a skill not something that can only be practiced by strong young farmers!

So ‘pull’ is a word on my amber – use with care – list. There are plenty of alternatives. For adults you accelerate the hands down to keep tension and de-accelerate as the rope rises for the same reason. You only have to draw your hands down a little faster or for longer to get the bell to go up. Those descriptions describe more effectively what you are trying to achieve without giving your learner ideas of muscle building.

Hold on!

Bell ringing terminology can be a secret code to the outsider and so often we take for granted an understanding of what we mean when we use, what are to us, are familiar words. When we teach, if we are to communicate well, we have to place ourselves in the position of the learner and ensure the words we use are fully understood. We may even have to modify normal understanding of some words and phrases to generate the correct action from the beginner

My pet hate is ‘hold’. The dictionary says it is to ‘keep fast; grasp (especially in hands or arms)’. But is that really what we want? I know a number of ringers who ‘keep fast and grasp’ the tail end with terrible consequences at handstroke, and others who are so worried about not ‘keeping the tail end fast and grasping it’ that they can barely ring as they focus on holding the rope. They often spend a fair time with rope flailing around putting the ringer next to them in danger!

This problem originates from the very beginning. Your new learner – who knows nothing about ringing – has just had a tour of the bells and is keen to get hands on a rope. There is a discussion about being right or left handed and when decided he (or she!) is told that the left (or right) hand will ‘hold’ the rope. They go on to do backstrokes and maybe other exercises. But they will remember the first instruction of their teacher, mentor and fount of all knowledge. Wishing to ensure they prove they are listening and are keen to achieve, they will ensure that at all times the rope is ’held’ (keep fast; grasp) in their hand. They will achieve this and ‘hold’ at all costs and not let go or relax their grip! Getting them to open their fingers later on will be a struggle and you will have to do many hand transfer exercises!

But back to our learner – they are happy; they have done as instructed and when they return home after their first taste of ringing they will tell the family what they have learned – to HOLD onto the rope and PULL – a lesson they will never forget.

Is that what we wanted? Really we wanted them to understand tension and keeping the rope straight by drawing it right down. But no we have taught them to hold on tight and pull!

Strangely you don’t have to find an alternative word – when you have sorted out which hand goes above which on the rope and do exercises and backstrokes the H word is not required. Much care has to be taken when doing the hand transfer movement and introducing handstrokes to avoid its use. Sometimes you may have to just say ‘it rests’ in your hand if you need to. Or it stays there. Much more relaxed words that make the learner feel they don’t have to concentrate on ‘holding’ it!


Bell Handling DVD

This DVD is a great resource for teachers and those learning to ring alike. It is full of useful tips and advice on ringing style and skill development following the structure of Module 1 of the ART Training Scheme.

The Bell Handling DVD is available from the ART shop.

John Harrison & Graham Nabb