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Fwd: MIT Guild of Bell Ringers in Globe

Apparently the part about "all you really need is the ability to count
to eight" didn't make the article :-)

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Lynn Heinemann <heine media mit edu>
Date: Dec 26, 2006 10:04 AM
Subject: MIT Guild of Bell Ringers in Globe
To: oa-staff mit edu, khoury mit edu, esalvi mit edu, lgross mit edu,
bellringers mit edu


Ring masters
Think all church bellringers are created equal? To join this crew, it
helps to be a rocket scientist.

By Janice O'Leary, Globe Correspondent  |  December 24, 2006

Bing never crooned about these bells.

They aren't silver. Made of bronze, they don't jingle. And no
Quasimodos lurk in the recesses of their towers.
And Bing Crosby wouldn't know what to make of the people who come to
play them. They don't exactly produce Christmas carols like the ones
he used to know.
You'll see them at the Old North Church and the Church of the Advent
on Beacon Hill. For most, it's a trip across the river: They're
usually MIT students or grads. They come, always in groups, to grasp
the dangling ropes and pull for all they're worth. But that's
precisely where the " White Christmas " imagery breaks down.
The members of the MIT Guild of Bellringers are practitioners of what
is called "change ringing." They strive to follow a pattern of notes
called a method, instead of a sequence of notes forming a song. Rather
than reading a sheet music score, bellringers memorize diagrams,
rectangular blocks of numbers that dictate the order in which to ring
the bells. There is no recognizable tune.
At first the bells emit a dissonant, slightly out-of-tune, metallic
clang. After a few rounds, they begin to sound more musical, and you
feel as though you've been transported to a European piazza on a
Sunday morning.
Bellringing might seem an unlikely team sport for engineers and math
wizards, but Cally Perry, the ringing master at the Church of the
Advent, said they go hand in hand.

"Bellringing attracts computer people because they are one of those
groups that love beautiful patterns and have an ability to recognize
patterns," said Perry. "That's what makes people who love computers
love bellringing."
Each of the eight bells at Old North and the Church of the Advent are
numbered, beginning with the lightest bell, the treble, number one,
and progressing to the heaviest, the tenor, at number eight. At Old
North, the treble weighs about 500 pounds and the tenor nearly 1,400.
Each also rings a particular note: The treble is tuned to an F, as is
the tenor, but in a lower octave. They are among the few change bells
in Massachusetts. Because the patterns are rung in an orderly sequence
of numbers, said MIT sophomore and Old North ringing master Mish
Madsen, it's a good fit for the mathematically minded. Ringers don't
necessarily have to be musicians, but "it helps to be used to thinking
about numbers, and it's useful to talk about bells in terms of number
theory and permutations," she said.

For instance, you may need to calculate the possible number of changes
depending on the number of bells. With six bells, you have 720
changes, or 720 lines to diagram. With seven bells, there are 5,040
changes, which makes up more than a peal. A peal is 5,000 rings
without a break and takes three hours to do -- "a marathon for
bellringers," said Danielle Morse, the tower captain at Advent.

"Ringing is music that's unlike any other kind of music," Perry said.
"There's an inevitability to it." And it's more intellectual
engagement than holiday entertainment.
Playing a tune on a conventional church bell is called "chiming" and
happens when a hammer hits the outside of a bell.
But in change ringing, the bells are mounted on enormous wheels that
are affixed into a square wooden frame. When a ringer pulls the rope
two floors below, he or she is pulling on the wheel, not the clapper,
moving the bell in a 360-degree arc, from noon to noon, with each
pull. The bell sounds at the 9 o'clock position, when the clapper
catches up with the bell. Only one bell sounds at a time.
"Striking a tower bell is very difficult," Perry said. "You pull,
wait, and then when your hands on the rope reach your nose, the bell
sounds. It's . . . like playing the drums by standing 30 feet away and
throwing a softball at it.

"Imagine doing jumping jacks, counting to eight, and you care that
your hands are out straight on three," she said. "You can consciously
fit in when you're supposed to ring like that, or you can look around
and find the person you're ringing after, but you have to find a
different person every ring."
This is how Madsen learned to ring bells -- through ropesighting.
Instead of memorizing the entire method or playing by ear, she locates
the person she'll follow each time and when that person's rope reaches
a certain point, she tugs on hers. Often the ringing master will call
the next line in the diagram, signaling the bells to swap places in
the sequence.
On a recent Sunday morning at Old North Church, the sun poured into
the bell tower and the guild members rang hunts -- the treble "hunts"
diagonally on the diagram from front to back -- on the very bells that
Paul Revere used to ring.
One person pulled at each of the eight ropes, in what first looked
like a random order with random timing, but soon a descending scale
was discernible. The 3 -foot-thick brick walls actually swayed, as
they are built to, with the vibrations of the bells.
Morse, an MIT alumna, led the first round, shouting "5 to 3," then "5
to 2," and finally "5 to treble." She was calling the bells to change
places, which is where change ringing gets its name.
The eight change ringing bells at Old North Church are the oldest in
North America, said Morse, and were cast in 1744 by Abel Rudhall in
Gloucester, England. They came to the North End in 1745 after serving
as a ship's ballast on their trans-Atlantic journey. In 1750, Paul
Revere signed a contract to ring them. Twenty-five years later, he
arranged for the church sexton to hang lanterns as a signal to other
patriots about the movement of British troops before he and William
Dawes set off on their famous midnight rides.

"Knowing that he went up the same narrow stairs . . . that is really,
really cool for me," said Madsen, who grew up in Newton. "It makes
this a very authentic experience."
The bells at the Church of the Advent were cast in 1900 at the
Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London, the same place that cast the
Liberty Bell in 1752.

"They are tuned in E flat," said Perry, "just the right key for
Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. So on the Fourth of July, they ring to
accompany the Boston Pops on the Esplanade. They mike us and swap us

For 70 years, the Advent bells lay nearly dormant because its Beacon
Hill neighbors complained of the noise. In 1971 they were rediscovered
and rang in the New Year in 1972. Since then the church tower has been
soundproofed so efficiently that the bells can hardly be heard just a
block away.

On New Year's Eve and July Fourth, the MIT guild rings a special
technique to celebrate, which Madsen was practicing that recent Sunday
at Old North -- they "fire" the bells.
Firing is the only time all the bells ring at once, and it sounds like
hands banging on a piano. "First we have to raise the bells," Morse
said. "Get them all so they are at the top of their arc."
Because of the varied weights of the bells, balancing them upside down
poses a challenge. Once the bells are set up, however, the guild
members pause. They then all pull at the same time, and the bells
sound simultaneously, a treat for both the ringers and listeners.
Next Sunday, as revelers raise their glasses, listen for the guild to
fire off a toast to the year ahead.
Janice O'Leary can be reached at joleary globe com
� Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.