There’s a Method to the Madness: Change Ringing in Northampton (2018)

The Smith College Change Ringing group based out of the Mendenhall Tower at Smith College is incredibly enthusiastic about the sounds created by bells and sharing that joy with others. Throughout my time working with the group, I’ve been invited into a community that is encouraging, thoughtful, and continuously aiming to improve their ringing skills together.

Change ringing is an art that emerged in England in the seventeenth century with mathematical permutations rather than melodic designs dictating the progressions due to the limitations of the bell’s movement once it is in motion. In the United States, there are roughly 40 active change ringing towers, which creates isolated communities focused on recruiting and teaching new members to keep the tradition alive. The current iteration of the band started up around 2008 and has rung continuously since, despite turnover.

All the members I’ve spoken to find the sound of the bells pleasurable, some finding it to be a form of algorithmic music. The challenge of bell ringing comes both in the bell handling, which requires a series of complex movements to guide the bell in time, as well as the memorization and understanding of methods, which is the equivalent to “pieces” in other forms of sound creation. The appeal of the challenge is the deep thinking and meditative state that is felt while ringing, something that is difficult to reach in other skills. Change ringing is a team sport, requiring watching and listening to others to stay in time. The vulnerability and reliance on others brings out a learning spirit and a jovial environment that leaves everyone refreshed for  days to come.  

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