It is hoped that this article will serve to augment the study material supplied for a recent course in Pittsburgh, organized and run by Don Morrison from 8/8/2014 to 8/10/2014.
Students came from several places including Toronto, New York, Atlanta, Birmingham and Hendersonville, for a weekend aimed at helping them develop conducting skills.
Established and prolific conductors from Boston, Kalamazoo, New York and Pittsburgh were asked to contribute their comments, advice, suggestions and their thought processes while conducting for inclusion, and input from those who did contribute is included at the end of the article. Sincere thanks go to them and to John Lingley of Pittsburgh and Candace Higginbotham of Shreveport for proof reading the article.
The general goals of this article are to convey many of the concepts pertinent to conducting and the responsibilities accepted by a conductor.
For non-conductors it must be appreciated that many conductors become conductors out of need as much as out of desire – without at least one conductor a band is restricted to plain courses of methods (I guess they are actually restricted to rounds and call changes, but for this purpose we will accept that saying “Go” and “That’s All” for a plain course of something does not necessarily constitute conducting), and for an able band that can become boring.
I think it can also be generally accepted that no one particularly likes being corrected, and more so in public, particularly when to do so involves sometimes shouting either to get their attention or to overcome the noise of the bells, and that a conductor has a bunch of things to think about which he or she (and possibly others in the band) may feel take priority over being “acceptably” civil to someone who is currently making a mistake.
Furthermore I don’t think any reasonable people would not understand that anyone can make a mistake, even a conductor, and if once in a while he or she makes a mistake and possibly “puts you wrong”, the time to debate the issue is not while ringing continues, however strongly you feel that you were/are right.
If you feel that strongly you should have insisted on conducting yourself.
And so – onward and (hopefully) upward…..
Conducting in a very general sense implies taking control of, or leading, a piece of ringing.
This may involve simply calling some changes then terminating the piece by calling “Stand”.
It may also involve calling a peal of one or more methods which in turn requires calling the changes of method (if it involves multiple methods) and the bobs, singles and other possible calls used by the composition to modify coursing order to generate a peal length, calling attention to poor or inadequately precise striking from one or more of the participants, and providing whatever assistance is necessary if one or more of the participants makes any method mistakes.
It may also require prematurely terminating the ringing if mistakes are deemed to be too extensive to correct, or if the ringing does not meet the desired quality standard of the conductor.
There are, no doubt, many different views on the primary duties of a conductor.
Many, often less experienced, ringers prefer that a conductor be able to keep ringing going “come what may”, and be able to correct any method errors, while continuing to make calls (and if necessary method changes) correctly.
Others, this author included, feel that a conductor’s primary responsibility is to get the best ringing possible from the band he or she has.
If, however, a conductor has little or no control over the band, as when he or she may be asked to conduct a quarter or peal for a special occasion and the band is selected by the organizer from the attendees, then one has to do the best one can with the band provided. And that may not be popular with the conductor, but for the sake of tact and expediency, he or she will usually make whatever effort possible, within the bounds of his or her own standards, to comply with the organizer’s (and possibly the band’s) requests.
Some more onerous duties
Some of a conductor’s duties may not be popular with all members of the band. In fact if you are able to keep correcting people but to do so permits the quality of the ringing to deteriorate below an acceptable level, it is possible that that may also not be popular with the entire band.
So you will need to be willing and able to accept and carry out your duties to the best of your ability, and if your ability is not up to that expected by some of the band, then they had just better look for an alternative conductor next time, as is of course their prerogative.
There is also the possibility that one or more of a band will be unwilling to be associated with a performance if it does not meet their personal standards of acceptability. Among such people, some will actually set their bell to stop ringing, or perhaps inform the conductor of their dissatisfaction during the ringing, or may wait until the end of ringing and inform the conductor of their views.
To my mind the first of these options is extremely discourteous to the conductor and unacceptable. The latter two are quite acceptable, and if the remainder/majority of the band wishes to accept the performance, it is customary to list the dissatisfied member as “A.N.Other” or some similarly appropriate “nom de corde”.
Competence in conducting , and progress towards it.
Some aspects of conducting are to a certain extent instinctive, and those who possess such instincts are relatively few.
The ability to discern when a particular ringer has “maxed out” on their current ability, reached the limit of their tolerance for instruction, or reached the point beyond which continued, adequate concentration is no longer attainable, seem to come naturally to some and never to others.
Some just have a “feel” for when a member of the band is particularly tired, or distracted, and is perhaps better suited to the treble, or covering, on that particular day.
And some have the ability to develop certain skills, such as ropesight and/or keeping track of coursing orders and other individual bells’ work, to a far greater and more extensive degree than the average ringer will ever manage (whatever “the average ringer” means).
For the prospective conductor who is looking for some guidance on how to develop their skills to maximize their conducting ability, one possibly helpful approach is to start by determining how much of your concentration is required to ring you own bell well and not make mistakes or get lost, and then use whatever concentration and mental ability is still available in the most efficient way to perform conducting duties.
Objectives for a conductor.
Conducting ability varies considerably between different people, and it is important for a prospective conductor to form an objective and accurate assessment of his or her own limitations.
The primary task of a conductor is the same as for any ringer – to keep good control of his or her bell and to strike it accurately, as well as keeping focused on the method or methods being rung and your bell’s place in the current method.
Beyond this, a general progression of conducting tasks (of increasing difficulty) may be considered :
1) Following coursing order for a plain course of the selected method – this can be practiced on many occasions when not conducting the ringing, and when not even ringing.
2) Putting in calls, in the correct row and at the correct time, as necessary for a known touch.
3) Transposing coursing orders for bells affected at each call, or if necessary learning the different coursing orders brought about by the calls.
4) Progressing to longer touches, quarter peals and peals and performing the earlier tasks in all cases.
5) Increasing the complexity of the method (or methods) rung, while still maintaining earlier tasks.
There are multiple skills that can help develop proficiency in the above tasks, and these include the following:
Ropesight (& why it is so important). Most people don’t have the mental equipment adequate for tracking the paths of all bells at all times, and even if they did they would need a way (or ways) to check that the bells are actually where they should be. Methods available for “observing” (or checking) the actual positions of bells are audible and/or visual. There may be those able to monitor the positions of bells purely by audible information, but again I don’t think there are many of them. Moreover, the quality of ringing does not need to deteriorate very much, especially on higher numbers of bells, before picking out individual bells from “the mass” becomes extremely difficult (at least it does for me). Audible information is only available for any given row very briefly before the bells are about to pull off for the following row, and is available for a small time span – the strike itself and essentially just the time until the next bell strikes. Information available from ropesight, in contrast, is available from the beginning of each row’s “pull off” until the next row is about to begin (or until the sallies disappear through the ceiling), is clearly visible even if the ringing quality is poor, and lasts for the full stroke of each row (or until the sallies disappear through the ceiling). You will never ring well without being able to hear your bell among the others, but I have yet to observe or hear any report of a conductor who is blind or vision-impaired to the point of being unable use ropesight. There are several ways to help develop ropesight for an aspiring conductor and for the entire band. There are certain methods that are usually rung by rule rather than by learning a defined “blue line”. Such methods include Dixon’s, or any method rung by observance of the treble. I am not a fan of habitually ringing methods by where one passes the treble or where the treble leads, lies, etc. (because even trebles make mistakes), but it can be a very helpful exercise for the development of ropesight. It can also be useful to ring simple, well known methods using different bells as the treble, so that in Plain Bob with a “substitute treble”, other bells will dodge (or make seconds) when the substitute treble is leading. Calling a few bobs to mix up the bells in Original and then trying to call it round spontaneously (there are various ways on which to base the “calling round” process) can be helpful in developing and practicing ropesight and can also be fun for the rest of the band.
Thinking about (and keeping track of) bells other than yours (and as well as, obviously, your own). I think most conductors use coursing orders to follow other bells and to determine when they go wrong and how best to correct them. For Plain Bob this is quite straightforward if you can transpose coursing orders at calls and keep them in you head at all other times. Simple touches can be learned by rote, but for longer touches including quarter peals and peals this can present a daunting task. Obviously some people will a have a better aptitude for transposing while ringing than others, but for pretty much everyone this ability will improve with practice and practicing when not ringing will also help in the process. Of course it must be realized that different methods have different transpositions for their calls, but for many of the more common, second place methods, the transpositions are often the same.
Efficient ways to dispense information – like informing the band of the current coursing order, what work a particular bell should be doing or preparing for. For a fairly experienced band, reciting the coursing order when it become obvious that someone is going wrong can be very helpful to the rest of the band to help the lost ringer correct themselves. But so often this is not done as the conductor is concentrating so hard on working out what to say to correct the offending bell (and its ringer) that reciting what is already in his or her head doesn’t readily occur to him or her. Also just telling a ringer which place bell they should be ringing should be helpful if they know the method properly, but it is not at all uncommon for ringers not to learn a method thoroughly, but just to learn a continuous blue line and pay no attentions to where it changes from one place bell to the next. There is not much can be done about this during a peal or quarter, but taking every opportunity to encourage ringers to learn methods they will ring thoroughly, by place bells, and preferably what each place bell does at the half lead, is a very good idea.
Recognizing “unconductable” ringers, meaning those who cannot (charitable designation) or will not respond positively to correction. Most adults, and for that matter many children, are not used to being given direct instructions without any kind of pleasantries or tact to soften the possibly harsh-sounding words. Consequently it is quite understandable that they don’t find such instruction enjoyable and on occasion respond negatively if and when they receive it. But as has been stated elsewhere, and what should really be obvious to participants in ringing, is that the conductor has many responsibilities to the entire band and there is precious little time to get the attention of the offending ringer and convey to him or her clear and unambiguous instructions to correct their mistakes. And it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that once in a while the conductor can make a mistake and put a ringer “wrong”, but if you are not prepared to accept this possibility and roll with it, then you need to develop your own conducting skills very quickly or find a conductor who never makes mistakes – please let me know if you ever find one. As for the archetypical “unconductible ringer”, it is not always easy to determine such traits until you try to correct them and receive a less-than-willing attitude to conform to your instructions. Although the opportunity is not always available, such ringers, particularly in peals or quarters, are accidents waiting to happen, and it is wise to avoid them whenever an option to do so exists.
Concentration on the composition – this is arguably the most critical aspect of conducting, as it is far easier to recover yourself from a method mistake than to recover the band from a missed (or incorrect) call. The importance of this stands on its own and needs no further explanation.
Personal discipline to ring using place bells and noting the transition from one to another, so that if you “doze off” you have a better chance to find where you should be. Again, this is essentially self-explanatory, but it is worth noting a few things. Methods transition from one place bell to the next much quicker when the treble has a Plain Hunt path than when it has a Treble Bob path, and also Little Bob and other “Little” methods can make this difference even more dramatic. So (to help reduce the effects of such differences) be sure of the treble path for any method you attempt to ring and not just the method blue line.
Objectives and strategies -
What do you want your conducting objectives to be? To obtain the best performance out of any band for which you are the designated conductor - selecting the method(s), placing the band, setting the speed of ringing. Ringing speed is often important. While a peal band should consist of ringers who are able to accommodate variations in ringing speed, practices and area meetings often put together (by design or accident) some ringers who like “to get them moving”, i.e. ring as fast as reasonably viable, and others, usually less experienced ringers who may be used to ringing more slowly than is “normal” and, particularly for older ringers, have difficulty ringing much faster than usual. This can be exacerbated if they are ringing more advanced methods than those with which they are familiar. Perhaps more obviously, it is good to distinguish between a band that needs a bit of confidence and an opportunity to ring a particular method, and one which is completely out of its depth. For them to try to ring the designated method is a waste of time for them and for those waiting to ring something else.
What things can be relied upon, if any? Yourself, coursing orders (if you can transpose or memorize them), thorough knowledge of the method or methods (including how different place bells “work”, or interact, with one another. It should be clear that the absolute minimum requirement is for the designated conductor to know and be comfortable taking charge for the piece to be rung. Beyond that he or she needs to be sure to stay right and not lose concentration during the piece, to put calls in the correct place, and if at all possible to be able to follow coursing orders (or for call changes, just the order of the bells) until it returns to rounds and the piece is terminated. If the piece is more complicated than Plain Bob or Grandsire, knowing the method well enough to determine if someone goes astray, and being able to work out where they should be and to give them the necessary instructions for them to return to their correct position, while all the time retaining one's own bell in the correct position, are very useful abilities. And the more thoroughly the conductor knows the method being rung, the more likely are the chances that the errant ringer (or ringers) can be told whom else to dodge with rather than just to dodge in a particular position.
How is your own competence and consistency? Anyone can and will make a mistake occasionally, but can you need to be able to self-correct. One of the things that demonstrate how well a conductor knows and is comfortable with a method, is not so much how they ring when they know where they are but how they ring when they are (hopefully just temporarily) lost. A conductor must very rarely go wrong and be willing and able to correct him- or her-self (and anyone they may have put wrong while they were lost, either through direct and erroneous direction by the conductor or by virtue of other ringers assuming the conductor must be right).
How is the individual competence and consistency of each of the other ringers in any given band? I cannot imagine any reliable way to determine this without ringing extensively with the other ringers, but certain pointers can offer insight into likely problems. When attempting a method or methods which are new or unfamiliar to a certain ringer or ringers, it is to my mind a good sign for them to be focusing their mental effort on avoiding distractions, like joking or general banter before ringing commences. Specific individuals will also likely have personal “tells” that provide information on their state of concentration and preparedness, but of course one would need to know the individual quite well before these could be useful. This alone may be a good reason for having a social aspect to ringing for a local band to allow the individuals to get to know each other well enough to provide this kind of information.
What amount of concentration is available to you after you have made sure you can keep track of your own bell and the work it needs to do? What can you think about while ringing and still retain enough concentration to keep right and strike well? This has been covered in other parts of this article, and relates to the “Objectives for a Conductor” section, starting on Page 4.
What information you can reliably obtain to help you to use your available concentration effectively to help anyone else who may need help while the current piece is being rung? As with the previous item, the general information that can be useful is covered by the “Objectives for a Conductor”. But what is required beyond this information is the ability to feel comfortable while giving corrective instructions and, of course, to keep enough attention on your own bell (and the composition and coursing order) to avoid drifting into “the void” of losing track of where you are or where you should be. Some people seem to be significantly more adept at these qualities that others, and there seems to be a definite limit on how much can be taught or learned. But it is still good, even necessary, to practice these abilities as and when possible and develop them as far as you can.
What useful information can be gained thorough study ahead of time (of a method or a composition) and what needs to be determined while ringing a particular course or touch (touches, of course, include quarters and peals)? Peals are often composed in multiple parts where each part has the same calling and where the coursing order returns to the plain course for many of the bells, and perhaps, as in a typical 3 part, only three of the bells are left in a different coursing order with respect to themselves and the other bells at each part end. The common calling for each part means that the conductor has much less to learn to complete the composition, and if he or she just memorizes the coursing order at the part ends it is quite possible, with practice, that the rest of the coursing orders can be transposed “on the fly” during the ringing. It is also common for the calls in each of a multiple part composition to have the same effect on certain bells, and if this is the case for he composition to be called, it can be very helpful for keeping track of individual bells as the composition progresses.
What aspects of a composition can be helpful aids to memory? Blocks of 3 consecutive calls at the same calling position and easily remembered coursing orders, etc. One of the simplest and easiest touches of most methods is three bobs called at the Home position. For the methods most people experience at first (second place lead end methods) this leaves unaffected bells which are above 4th place at the lead end where the bob is called and has the front 3 bells at the same lead end, in turn, run out, make the bob and then run in (or those three actions in the same order but starting with a different one of them). For “Nth” place lead end methods, where N is the number of bells on which it is being rung, and using a fourth place bob, the bells starting above 4th place often dodge (instead of hunting) at each bob and repeat the previous lead, so the touch becomes three leads long rather than three courses long. But the fact is that three consecutive calls at the same calling position in any touch can be helpful to the memory of a conductor as it leaves the coursing order the same at the end of the block as it was at the beginning, and this effect does not change if the three calls are at a different position than the Home position. Memory cues like that can be helpful.
What help (if any) can be contributed by other members of a local tower band? Standing behind someone, watching someone from another bell, etc. This obviously depends greatly on the experience and ability of the other members of a local band. Many bands don't have anyone who can help, but if such people are available it is silly not to use them when they can be helpful, and it also probably encourages them to get into conducting themselves, which would be a good development.
Encouragement, comments, advice and personal thought processes from established conductors
Rob Kakuk, Kalamazoo, MI
I would encourage any ringer to give conducting a try. A starting point can be rounds and call changes, which affords the new caller a first chance to speak a command while ringing a composition that he or she arranges.
This can spark an interest in further calling that leads to the pursuit of conducting methods, but in any case it makes the caller a stronger ringer. It can also serve to add another voice to the tower thus enriching practice nights. If calling turns out not to be the ringer's cup of tea, then he or she can cease. However, this ringer might be the band's best option for a conductor.
For method conducting, I recommend that a conductor choose a composition that both suits the band and that he or she can readily keep track of in this context. Standard callings are excellent for this, and are often musical too.
Plain Bob Doubles extents with the observation bell unaffected at three bobs in fifth's are a good choice, and they can be arranged in a manner that's conducive to counting for a quarter peal. For example, one could call each of three observation bells three times behind in a certain order, counting simply to three for three of these blocks. That makes nine extents, before or after which one could call an extent and a 60, or indeed two of the three extent callings.
Universal callings are nice for Plain or Treble Dodging Minor methods, for example In-Out-In three times from the tenor for an extent of Kent Treble Bob. They have a memorable pattern that is good for remembering where the calls come in terms of one's own work. They also result in a good secondary observation bell, the fifth in the case of the tenor as primary observation on six.
This can free up the senses for keeping the band right. For a quarter peal, the second part of In-In-In-Out-Out-Out is a winner.
I believe that if a band is capable of ringing quarter peals it should attempt them regularly if possible. This not only serves to improve the caliber of ringing generally but keeps the band engaged and interested and can give less experienced members something to look forward to.
It helps here not to be afraid of failure, both in terms of methods attempted and composition.
Branching out in either or both can pay big dividends assuming the band is up for it. One way is that the willing conductor can learn valuable lessons of how better to tackle the challenge the next time. Being willing is an asset to the band.
I'll defer to other sources regarding method structure, coursing order, and their application to conducting. There are a number of excellent books covering these topics, and study outside the tower is strongly encouraged.
Of paramount importance, however, is the aspiring conductor's trials of applying the information in the belfry to gain his or her own understanding of how it works hands-on.
Tim Barnes, Trinity, New York, NY
Coursing order is key, of course.
Being able to transpose and retain a 5-bell coursing order takes practice, so start with compositions that only have 4 working bells (i.e. comps that just have calls at W and H).
Once you get to Surprise methods, the order in which you pass bells inside the lead deviates from the coursing order, so being able to rapidly calculate what place bell somebody is becomes more important.
When you see somebody go wrong, calculate their place bell and put them right based on what their place bell does and whereabouts you are in the lead.
To calculate someone's place bell, I think in terms of bells that are on the right of me in the coursing order, and those that are on the left. So if the CO is 24653 and I'm on the 7th (while ringing Major), I think of 2, 4 and 6 being on my right, and 5, 3 and 8 being on my left.
The 2 is then +1 leads to the right of me, the 4 is +2 leads to the right, the 5 is -3 leads to the left, and so on.
Then if I'm ringing, say, 2nds place bell and I see the 3rd go wrong, since the 3rd is -2 from me, the 3rd must be ringing 5ths place bell. This works for all methods that have Plain Bob lead ends (which is probably 99% of methods).
When ringing Surprise, know how the lead end order relates to the Plain Bob lead end order. A lead of Cambridge gets you to the same place as 2 leads of Plain Bob, so Cambridge is a +2 method.
Cassiobury is +3, Ashtead is -3, London is -1 etc. This helps when you see someone go wrong towards the end of a lead - you can work out what they're doing by working backwards from the place bell they're about to become.
It's also helpful to know for every place bell of every method you're ringing (1) where the half lead is, (2) the 2 points in the lead where you'll pass the treble, and (3) which place bell is the pivot bell.
For Grandsire, I try to transpose the coursing order each lead, with one bell in the coursing order mentally underlined as the hunt bell. At a bob, the underline moves 2 positions to the left in the CO. At a plain lead, the hunt bell, H, moves 1 place to the left. So ABCHD becomes ABHCD.
In Stedman I maintain and transpose the partner bell order. For Caters in the handstroke position, this is 84596213 (from the 7th). From this I remove the fixed bells to leave 4523 (when just using calls at 5 and 16). I then know that a bob at 5 turns 4523 to 5243, and a bob at 16 turns 4523 to 5324.
Don Morrison, Southminster, Pittsburgh, PA
Different folks have different notions of what constituted "conducting." Some think it's mostly just putting in bobs. These notes are not particularly concerned with that aspect of conducting. Rather they are about the conductor as someone who leads and helps along a band or a piece of ringing. These are a diverse collection of ideas about conducting, in no particular order. Some may help you, some you might choose to ignore.
Putting in bobs isn't just a matter of knowing at which lead end to shout "bob." It's also where in the row to shout it. If sometimes it's early in the row and sometimes it's late, the band will find it confusing and make more mistakes. Be sure to base your bob calling on where the row begins. For treble dominated methods watching the treble and calling "bob" based on where the treble ringer is in her pull is a useful tool to ensure consistency. Exactly at what point in the row a bob should be called is to a large extent a matter of taste, but that it is consistent is an objective need. Some conductors prefer a little earlier, some a little later; but as long as it is consistent, the band will adapt.
A lot of folks are scared of coursing orders, because they think they aren't good at remembering and manipulating numbers. But that's irrelevant; coursing orders aren't numbers. We typically use sequences of digits to describe a coursing order, and those who find it comfortable may even memorize and manipulate sequences of digits, but that's not essential. A coursing order is just a pattern. What we really need, and the level at which a coursing order is useful, is in the sense of "it's this bell, followed by that bell, followed by that one, " In fact, if you are thinking of a coursing order as a sequence of numbers, you will have to translate it in some fashion in your mind before you can even use it!
Everyone has to find the mental representation, or more likely representations, that work(s) for them. One possibly useful trick is to think in terms of the people ringing the various bells: the human brain has huge portions of it largely dedicated to social purposes, including holding mental models of the identity of one person or another, and matching attributes to them; use that ability to help you in any given touch. For example, "Fred after Alice after George after Mary." Or use geometrical properties, thinking in terms of "the bell over there is coursing after the bell over here." Whatever works for you.
It's also worth noting that the human mind is not very good at attending to many things at once. Even the old saw about 7 plus or minus 2 is viewed as probably too big by many recent researchers dealing with working memory capacity. It helps a lot to find ways to partition coursing orders into fewer, "bigger" chunks than individual bells. One way we frequently do this is by keeping the back bells fixed, and so we only have to worry about 4 or 5 bells in a coursing order. But for many classes of touches, or just for portions of particular touches, we can often chunk even those 5 bells further. For example, for many touches it can be useful to think of a coursing order as a pattern with 5 and 6 in a pair of places in it, and 2, 3 and 4 distributed in the other three places. And by learning more about the touch, we learn "oh, this bob moves the 5-6 such and such way, while these bobs just affect the little bells." If you learn, really learn, the coursing orders for three bobs Home, each of those three arrangements of 3-2-4 can take on an identity of its own. And then you just have to plunk that single chunk into the spaces available in the pattern that 5-6 have left available.
It's also worth getting on friendly terms with which coursing orders are in course and which out of course. Pretty quickly you learn that for just bobs Home the three out of course ones, 2-3-4, 3-4-2 and 4-2-3 are just the plain course order with one pair of bells swapped over. Those without that property, 3-2-4, 2-4-3 and 4-3-2 are all in course. When 5-6 are Home, the overall in/out-of-course-ishness (parity) is just that of 2, 3 and 4. If 5-6 are Home but swapped over, it's the opposite of what 2, 3 and 4 would say in isolation. Similarly if 5-6 are coursing each other at the beginning or end of the coursing order, in that order (you may not be thinking of it as two numbers in order, maybe as "smaller before larger of those two bells"), the overall parity is the opposite of that of the little bells in isolation; and if they're coursing in the order 6-5 it is (unsurprisingly) the same as that of the little bells in isolation. There are many touches, even peal compositions, for which this covers most of the coursing orders, most of the time. And with some effort you can work out similar properties for other "shapes" of coursing orders. For a lot of other touches shapes based on 2-3 being largely fixed may be useful. Anything you can do to chunk coursing orders into more manageable pieces, and to give a sense of identity to the different coursing orders will help make them more memorable, and help in knowing how to use them.
And even if you're having trouble keeping the whole coursing order somehow wedged in your mind, it doesn't mean you can't still use it. Keep some of it there. Perhaps there are a pair of bells (5-6 is often such a pair, as is 2-3) that do something repetitive together. If you know their relationship to one another that can be helpful for detecting and correcting errors. Perhaps you see them dodging the wrong way around together at the back of the row. Or that some other bell is hunting down between them when they should be coursing. Even a fragment of the coursing order is often better than nothing, and can tide you over until you get things completely figured out again. Don't panic.
And while it's lovely if you do manage to keep the current coursing order near the front of your mind at all times, if you lose it, it's not gone forever. If the ringing is still going alright, the bells will tell you the coursing order. Learn to read it off of the bells as you ring. This is a great thing to practice when you're not conducting. Or when you're sitting out, not even ringing. If you've not been playing close attention ask yourself "what's the coursing order" and work it out by watching. As with most things practice will make it easier, quicker, and more secure.
Putting others straight isn't just a matter of knowing where the bells are supposed to be. A huge further piece of it is communication, both ways. Both helping others to correct their mistakes, and knowing how to read the warning signs from someone who does need help.
Again, huge portions of the human brain are devoted to social functions, among them reading things from others' faces. Learn to look at the other members of the band; you can tell a lot more than you might imagine about what they are trying to do from incredibly subtle clues, clues you couldn't possibly describe to others. We've all seem conductors who seem to know that a ringer is about to go wrong before that ringer even knows it himself. It's all about subtle clues, possibly from the face, possibly from how a bell is being rung - remember that how a ringer manipulates a bell now is driven not just by this blow, but by the next several, expected blows, too. Watch others ringing even when you're not; see where they're looking, what clues can you read of what they're thinking and trying to do?
And when helping others who have gone wrong, we need to be sure to think of it in those terms: we have no control over their bell, they do, so all we can do is help them to ring better. While for an experienced ringer simply telling them what they did wrong six blows ago may be enough to help them recover from an error, for the less experienced it is probably more important to tell them what they will be doing in the immediate future. "You're coursing down after the 4 and will dodge 3-4 up at the next lead end" is probably more useful than "you missed your 5-6 up dodge." And remember that mistakes tend to come in groups, especially with less experience ringers. The effort of getting back on track takes mental attention away from not making future mistakes, and so.... It can be helpful to keep an eye on someone for another lead to ensure he's really back on the mental rails he wants to be on.
And use you face reading skills to try to deduce whether you need to say anything at all: if they've figured it out, what value will there be in telling them something? Sometimes there may be value, if you think further mistakes may be coming, but try to use good judgment.
And don't panic. It's usually better to take an extra couple of seconds to be sure what you're going to say is correct, and helpful, than to hastily put someone wrong. Of course we all will accidentally put someone wrong from time to time, but fixing such a problem of our own making is usually harder, and almost always more frustrating for everyone, than fixing a simple trip.
Many beginning conductors figure out which leads to call bobs in almost exclusively from the position of one bell. Resist this temptation, as it is not secure: you may be slightly confused about where that bell is (e.g. perhaps dodging 7-8 up not down), or the ringer of that bell, whether someone else or yourself, may be confused and not ringing in the right place. Further, with the most commonly rung second's place methods, observation bells are often at the back of the row when a call is made, requiring you to look in two places simultaneously to ensure to make the call at the right instance in time.
Far better is to use the coursing order to figure out which leads need calls. For second's place methods the treble will be coming down mixed in with exactly those bells. And there will typically be three of them; even if one is lost there are still two more. And if you're watching these bells it's going to help you sort out any problems, too.
One essential thing to learn is how the bells affected by a call work when a call is made. Typically it's the same no matter what the calling position is. For most second's place methods, before a bob the bells are in the order: the bell that makes fourths, followed by the bell that runs out, followed by the treble, followed by the bell that runs in. Even for surprise methods where it may be harder to see the coursing order in the middle of the lead, as you get close to the lead end you can typically see things lining up just like in Plain Bob.
The other thing you need to know, of course, is the relevant bit of the coursing order. While again it would be great if you know the whole coursing order, all the time, if you lose track of it it's typically not a big problem. All you need to really know is the three bobs being affected, and if you'd understood how a composition "works" this is typically a pretty easy thing to do. Especially if you've chosen a composition based on what you find easy to understand about how bells shift around.
And even if you've lost track of some of these bells, in a pinch you'll probably know what at least one of them does, and that should be enough. It's not as secure as knowing all three, but no worse than calling it from the position of an observation bell, and it will ensure you pick up where the other two bells are in the coursing order at the bob.
And, of course, even if when you are using the coursing order to determine which leads have bobs, you should also know where the observation bell will be at each call. This gives you an extra check on what you're doing. For example, if you think you see the two bells that will be running in and out at the next bob coursing down around the treble, but you know it's a Home and it looks like the tenor's coming down ahead of them, you can reconsider, and figure out whether you're wrong, or someone is lost. And it gives you another bell you can easily put straight at the lead end if it appears to be going wrong.
As mentioned below, the most secure compositions to call are those for which you understand some structure and how things hang together. Often those involve other bells besides the observation doing something repetitive. At calls where they are not affected that gives you yet more bells you know where are at the bobs.
When calling a touch resist the temptation to ring an unaffected bell yourself. Far better is to be in the thick of things:
- In the most commonly rung methods unaffected bells tend to be at the back of the row when calls are made. These are actually the hardest positions from which to see when to accurately say "bob."
- A popular place for folks to go wrong, or to swap over, is at calls, when they are affected. If you are ringing one of the affected bells that's one fewer ringer you have to speak with to put straight. Even if you go wrong, you have a much clearer, less noisy, faster communication channel to yourself than you do to any other member of the band.
- The fixed bells are the easiest to keep track of when you are conducting. Don't waste one on yourself--take advantage of the opportunity to make it a little easier to keep someone else straight.
- It's often easier to transpose coursing orders (particularly if you're thinking bells instead of numbers!) if you're ringing one of the bells that's shifting around at the call.
- If you are one of the bells involved in those coursing order transpositions, it will naturally keep you more on your toes and aware of the current coursing order. When ringing an observation bell it is all too easy to drift off and stop paying attention to anything but the position of your own bell.
- As discussed above, it is better to be using all three bells involved at a call as a tool for knowing when to make bobs, rather than just the position of one observation bell. This is easier if you're down near or among those bells, rather than up at the other end of the row.
- The largest working bell (the tenor if uncovered, and the N-1 with a cover) is the bell that requires the most attention to ring well and rhythmically; and if it isn't rung well, it seriously degrades the performance of the whole band. Unless you feel significantly more experienced and confident than anyone else in the band, the ringing will probably go better if someone who can give it their full attention rings the tenor or N-1.
A good way to become more comfortable calling things from among the working bells is to work up to it in a couple of steps. For example, many touches, such as the most popular extents of minor, which also are often useful as simple quarters of major, have a useful repeating pattern: the 5 is affected by all, or nearly all, the calls, but comes home every other course head. Start by ringing the 5. It's easy enough to memorize what it does through one part. Once you've rung it a bunch of times it will have become second nature knowing both what it's doing at every call, but also how it interacts with the tenor at each lead. Now switch to one of 2, 3 or 4. You know what the 5 and 6 (and 7 and 8 if major) are doing all the time, as well as your own bell -- that leaves only two other bells! And only two places they can be at any time, since you know where all those other bells are. All you have to keep track of is which way those two bells fit into those two slots. Of course, in practice, things are harder than that, but you can see that you have simplified the problem markedly by being completely familiar with what the 5 does.
Paradoxically one of the most useful things you can do to learn better how to keep others straight is to make mistakes yourself. No, not deliberately, and not necessarily while you are conducting. Rather, learn to use the tools available to you as a conductor not just to put others straight, but also to put yourself straight when you've gone wrong.
It's easier to use the coursing order to put yourself back where you belong, than it is to tell someone else how to get back to where they belong. It's easier to translate knowledge of what place bell you must be into where you are right now in the middle of the lead than it is to help someone else similarly situated. It's easier to work out and make use of where you must be because of where you are in the calling than it is to use that information to put someone else straight.
When you are ringing but not conducting, still pay attention to the coursing order, to what the calling is, and so on. Use it to make your own ringing more secure. Don't pass up opportunities to better understand how ringing works. While learning such things in theory is invaluable, it pales compared to the level of skills you acquire actually putting it into practice.
In fact, you don't even have to be ringing. If you're standing out of a touch at a practice, pick a ringer you don't know where is, and try to work out where he or she should be in whatever method they are ringing. When you get that one sorted in mind, move on to another. If this is too easy, try to do two at the same time.
It's no surprise to anyone that choice of composition can affect your success as a conductor. But be sure to think about what makes a composition really easier, rather than simply what makes it appear easier on paper. Just because it takes up fewer lines, or
involves fewer marks on the page, it is not necessarily easier.
You want a composition where it is easiest to understand and predict the coursing order at any point. For example, the "standard extent" of Plain Bob Minor (WH H x6, with a pair of singles at some strategic point or other) may not be the easiest for everyone. It involves eighteen of the twenty-four possible coursing orders on six bells: all six each of the ones where the 5 is coursing after 6, or is one place removed, either after or before, the 6. Two thirds of these coursing orders are not maintained for a whole course, you're shifting in and out of them after one or four leads.
A calling like WsWWsWH x3 has fewer, more predictable coursing orders. It only uses twelve of the possible coursing orders on six bells, the minimum required to ring an extent: those with the 5 coursing after the tenor, and those with the third bell after the tenor in the coursing order. If you know the coursing orders for three (or six) Homes thoroughly, those with 6-5 coursing are, of course, familiar. But the remain six are also easy to imagine as the two bells between the 6 and the 5 after each bob Wrong are the first two bells from the corresponding arrangement of the three little bells that preceded that call, in the same order; and, of course, the remaining bell is the one after the 5 and before the 6. And that remaining bell courses in front of the tenor for four whole courses, the full duration of each part, and is only changed by the bobs Home. This is considerably easier for many folks to keep track of than what happens in WH W, where the different pairs of bells are swapping around regularly, and a pair is reversed from its "usual" order in the lead between the bob Home and bob Wrong.
It's also worth noting that the coursing order can help you a lot in remembering where you are in this calling. There is a call that affects the first three bells after the tenor in the coursing order (that is, a bob Wrong) in every course. If 6-5 are coursing, it's a bob, and the 5 makes it, changing the coursing order into one where the 5 is now as it was, except the five is between the second and third of the three little bells in the coursing order. If the tenors are not coursing, it's single, the 5 makes thirds, and 6-5 resume coursing, having arrived at the coursing order that is the same as it was last time the 6-5 were coursing, with the first two bells reversed; that is, the out of course coursing order that has the same little bell last. And, if you know three bobs Home thoroughly, the bobs that affect just the three little bells (the bobs Home) at the end of the parts will be thoroughly familiar. And, if you know which arrangements of the little bells are in or out of course, you can use that to know whether or not to call a bob Home: you only do so when the 6-5 are coursing and it is in course.
If you choose an extent of Bob Minor that involves only calls at Wrong and Home, you can also use it to call a quarter of Bob Major, a 1,344. It makes all the effort of learning that extent of minor thoroughly and even better investment. The calling positions will be the same. The 6, 8 and 7 are all unaffected, and remain coursing one another in that order through out. The other bells are affected in exactly the same way by the calls as in the extent of minor, and the coursing orders are exactly the same. And, if you place your calls using the coursing order, it will feel exactly the same as calling the minor!
For longer touches again try to pick ones that you find easy to work out the coursing orders for, typically by having fixed pattern for some of them, into which the others are slotted appropriately. Many folks find three and six and twelve part compositions where 5 and 6 come home (possibly reversed) at the part ends, or 2 and 3 come home, often with lots of blocks of three or six calls on the other working bells, particularly easy in this regard. Figure out what you find easiest to work out and remember coursing orders for. Beware of five or ten parts: while they may look shorter on paper than three or six parts, respectively, all the working bells are typically stirred together in ways many folks find harder to predict and work out on the fly. Your mileage may vary.
Before the band even pulls off to ring a quarter or other touch you may have a big opportunity to affect the quality of the ringing: how the band is placed. Resist the temptation to put the weakest ringer on the treble; that is better rung by one of the best ringers in the band. How well the treble is rung can have a huge impact on how the rest of the band does. And while you typically have a lot of time to put a lost working bell right before it drags down the rest of the band with it, the treble can't be lost for long without disaster resulting.
And ensure a good ringer, with a strong sense of rhythm, is ringing the tenor. This bell probably affects the overall quality of the ringing more than any other. Even when ringing odd bell methods with a cover, if you have the luxury of putting one of your stronger ringers on the tenor behind the ringing will be much better than it would have been otherwise. In general, it is best to have your least secure ringers roughly in the middle somewhere; these are the bells that are easiest to strike well, and at the same time are the ones that cause least disruption to the overall ringing when they aren't rung as well as you might like. Besides having more experienced ringers on larger bells, it is worth noting that the smallest bells also require extra skill, particularly on higher stages (caters and above): unlike larger bells, for the smallest bells you are ringing them up to the balance and having to use your own innate sense of rhythm without any help from the bell.
Of course, many other factors come into play in band placement. Maybe the quarter has been specially arranged to give someone a chance to ring the tenor. Or there is otherwise a designated treble or tenor. Or perhaps it is a band you ring a lot of quarters with, and you'd, wisely, like to give everyone opportunities now and then to ring a different bell than they usually do. You need to use your best judgment. But if at all possible, have only one or two people ringing somewhere other than their optimal placement in any given touch.
If you're interested in learning to be a better conductor, but have never taken up hand bell ringing, give it a try. Simply by ringing hand bells you'll learn a lot about how bells work
together, and it is all reflected in the coursing order, lessons you can put to work conducting in either tower or hand. If there isn't a hand bell band where you ring, start one. Leading folks to learn to ring in hand will teach you even more about not just hand bell ringing, but ringing. And it only takes half as many people to form a band, so it provides great opportunities for attempting quarters.
Finally, I'm going to issue a challenge to you. The most important thing for learning to conduct is doing it. Likely the most valuable thing you can do for your conducting skills is to organize and lead a quarter that you're going to have to do more for than just put in the bobs. Depending upon your existing skills and experience that might be Plain Bob, or might be something harder. Get a band and your bells organized for a quarter. You don't want the world's strongest band, you want one that can realistically ringing whatever you're going for, but can be expected to need a little help. Make sure everyone is kind
and supportive and not likely to give up at the first kerfuffle. Book the band the bells for at least two hours, better three. Start for your quarter. If things go wrong do your best to sort it out. If you eventually have to stand it up, fine. Do so, and start again. Every
time you do put something straight you'll have added to your repertoire of skills; the next time you see that mistake, it will be easier to resolve. If you get it after two and half hours of hard work, with a dozen false starts, you'll have a learned a whole lot more than if it all went swimmingly from the word "go" and never needed a word other than "bob" or "single." Even if after a time you're seeing diminishing returns and prudence says it's time to pack up and head off to the pub you, and the rest of the band, will have learned far more than if you'd just dashed off a quarter with no effort. Do give it a try.
Considerations and suggestions for aspiring conductors