Change Ringing on Handbells - American Style by Danny Lyons

Change Ringing is a system of ringing bells in a mathematical sequence as opposed to a melodic sequence and is usually played on tower bells. Though it's not something you can "hum along with," Change Ringing produces beautiful bell sounds with an intriguing sequence. Change Ringing towers are rare (there are only 48 in the United States) and changes are oftentimes done using handbells. In fact, it's because tower ringers needed a practice instrument that handbells were invented.

The common practice for ringing changes on handbells has the restraining springs adjusted so the bell rings with equal force in either direction, and the bells are rung on the downstroke and on the upstroke with no follow-through (or circles.) This means that if you don't have a tower nearby or you're not willing to readjust your bells between change ringing and our normal style of ringing, you're left out in the cold.

To further the art of change ringing and to join in the fun of a lovely ringing exercise, I've coined the term "American Style" to mean that no adjustments to the springs are made, and we ring changes using our regular style of ringing on the downstroke followed by a nice circle. In other words, using the same bells that you play every week and using the style of ringing that you already know.

Change Ringing can get to be very complicated and goes well beyond the scope of this article - and beyond the scope of my own knowledge. The purpose of this article is to have fun, and in that vein, I will show some ways of doing Change Ringing that can be enjoyed by anyone from grammar schoolers to septuagenarians, whether or not they have any musical knowledge or experience.

Cross and Stretch
This is a game of making a single octave of handbells move in the order of "Plain Hunt on 8" (illustrated below). It is a fun musical exercise in co-ordination and listening skills, and it's good for all ages.

Directions: There are four ringers in one octave of bells with two bells per ringer. The bells are in order from high to low. Each change (sequence of 8 bells) is rung in order from right (R) to left (L) with whichever bells are in the ringer's hands.

  1. Ring right (R) to left (L) in order (This will produce a descending major scale called "Rounds.") 
  2. Cross — cross your hands (with bells in them) right (R) over left (L), place the bells down on the table in that order and let go. Now uncross your hands and pick the bells up in that order so that they're in reverse order from the original. Ring right (R) to left (L) with the new bells: a different pattern emerges. 
  3. Stretch — Stretch your right (R) hand over your neighbor's left (L) hand and leave that bell on the table in front of your neighbor's left-hand position. At the same time, stretch your left (L) hand under your neighbor's right (R) hand and leave that bell in front of their right-hand position. 
  4. Pick up the two new bells in front of you in the order in which they were placed on the table. (Note: the two end positions will only stretch with their Inside bell and will retain the outside bell for the next round.) 
  5. Ring R – L 
  6. Cross 
  7. Ring R to L 
  8. Stretch 
  9. Ring R to L 
  10. Etcetera

After crossing and stretching for 8 times, the bells will be completely reversed when rung from Right (R) to left (L) and will produce an ascending major scale called "Back Rounds". Continue crossing and stretching until the bells return to the descending major scale (Rounds). This whole sequence will produce what we call "Plain Hunt," so named because each bell "hunts" its way up and down the ringing table. For illustration, this sequence is outlined below but need not be memorized or even understood by the ringers. Number 1 is the highest bell, and number 8 is the lowest.

Plain Hunt on 8


Bodies moving Method
Directions: Each ringer has a single handbell using one diatonic octave of bells and all stand in a line in order from high bell to low bell. This may seem confusing upon a first read-through, but it can be accomplished easily and with just a short practice can be rung by anyone.

  1. The first change (row) is rung from the high bell #1 (called the treble) to the low bell #8 (called the tenor). This is a descending major scale called Rounds. 
  2. From there, each ringer moves physically either to the right (R) or left (L) to attain a new position in the line. Counting from top to bottom, odd numbers will move to the left (L) and even numbers will move to the right (R). Those moving to the right should go in front, those moving left go behind, and everyone stops back in line. 
  3. The bells are rung in order according to the new placement: right (R) to left (L). 
  4. Everyone moves again, with the exception that the end ringers both remain in place for one extra round. (See number sequence to illustrate.) Then bells are rung top to bottom in the new order. 
  5. On the next round (or change, as it's called) everyone moves. The sequence of ring/move, ring/move continues until the ringing order comes back to rounds. Remember that the end ringers must stay in place for an extra turn, then move every time until they reach the other end of the line where they stay in place for the extra time, then start moving in the opposite direction.

Standing in place Method
Plain Hunt on 8 is rung again, but this time bodies don't move, even though the changes (the ringing sequence) must remain the same. It's tough, but you can do it!

Rounds, Queens, Kings, Backrounds
These are some fun, named changes using just four ringers and eight bells. A combination of these changes can make a nice prelude for worship.

Directions: All are rung LV. Ringers are standing in a line (or in a circle) with the bells in descending order, and each ringer has two bells.

Rounds — Start at the top and ring all 8 bells descending in order. The hands will be: R L R L R L R L
Backrounds — Start at the bottom and ring up. The hands will be: L R L R L R L R
Queens — start at the top and descend with the right (R) hand only, then do the same with the left (L) hand. The hands will be: R R R R L L L L (descending both times)
Kings — start at the bottom and ring ascending with the right (R) hand, then descend with the left (L) hand. The hands will be: R R R R L L L L (ascending with the right, descending with the left)

All of these changes can be rung with bells or chimes or you might need a combination if several octaves are needed. Have fun!

Video demonstrating the Cross & Stretch method of Change Ringing:

Video demonstrating the Change Ringing of Tower Bells: 

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