Getting Practice

Getting Practice #

A lot of this chapter on Supplemental Skills has been devoted to the growth and development of the band through the actions of the caller or conductor; that is, watching out for getting the right type of touch, placing your band just so, and giving guidance in a kind and sensitive manner while also being effective.

This section, on “Getting Practice,” is about how to effectively advocate for yourself in getting the sorts of practice you will need to become a good conductor. Some people will not struggle with this problem at all; if anything, they will struggle with the opposite problem of over-confidence leading to a lot of very ambitious attempts, very few of which come round! But here we’ll focus on the opposite side of the spectrum: perhaps you feel very shy about asking for opportunities, or your local tower leadership are not willing to let you have a go. Here, I’ll talk over some different strategies you can use to get practice, regardless of your situation, by focusing on a few potential problems and some solutions to them.

Problem: I don’t know how to practice. #

I think this is very common! “Learning to learn” is its own process and can often be quite difficult. How many people did you know in high school or college (sixth form or uni…) who stared at their notes for hours and hours on end only to do poorly on exams? For many people, “note-staring” is not an effective form of study. Many people need to re-write out their notes, condense, highlight, color, draw, speak it out loud to someone, or teach someone else to have information truly sink in. Similarly, blankly staring at a composition is not an effective form of practice for most people trying to learn how to conduct. Everyone has a different learning style and thinks about ringing in a slightly different way, and so what works for one person may not work for the next. Here is a collection of a few different ways to practice; maybe one of them will work for you:

Strategy 1: “Study” in advance #

Yes, this is the staring-at-the-composition bit. But don’t just stare: Maybe you need to write out the coursing orders, or write out the place bell order of the observation bell, or explain to a rubber duck on your desk how the part ends work. Maybe you need to figure out how to “chunk it up” in your head; is there a set of 3 Homes? Or a long run of calls at Before?

Some people learn compositions (and methods) by learning a string of English words to repeat in their head as they ring. So for example, if they are calling “Wrong, 3 Befores, Middle, and Home” they will repeat that themselves (silently) and then think something like “I’m at the Middle.”

Others learn very visually; still others only keep the coursing orders in mind and transpose them as the ringing goes on. Try a bunch of things and see what works for you. Don’t be surprised if you end up spending as much time learning the composition (in this very intense way) as you would just ringing it through, especially at first.

Strategy 2: Try it out and reflect #

Once you’ve studied in advance, give it a go with a band (or with a virtual helper program, like a simulator or online program). Afterwards, take the time to sit down and reflect on what went well and what didn’t. Did you totally lose track of the composition? How can you help yourself fix that next time? Did the ringing fall apart through no fault of your own? Was there something you could’ve known but didn’t (like a useful coursing order) that would’ve helped?

Think about which problems were specific to this composition with this band (“Well, it was a tricky cyclic composition and I put myself on the 3, which was a bad idea”) and which problems are more general (“I am putting some of my calls in slightly late”). Consider how to best fix those up next time. If you don’t know, try to ask other people what they do to get ideas. These can be local people or people on the internet; Facebook has several change ringing groups that can be useful resources for questions like these.

Strategy 3: Ask for a shadow #

It’s very common when learning to ring to have someone watch with an eye to help, and learning to conduct is no exception. It is not uncommon for a learning conductor to ask for someone to “shadow” the composition. These shadow conductors watch the composition as closely as you will, and will step in if you go awry or get lost. They may even give a call if you miss one. I ask for this type of help sometimes even now, especially if I’m conducting something particularly tricky. I found I have only ever used my shadow conductor a few times; just knowing I have someone else watching the composition makes me feel more calm.

Who to ask: Ask someone who is (a) friendly and (b) ideally, a better conductor than you are!

What to ask: Ask them if they’d be willing to shadow you. Explain what the composition is and ask if they’d feel comfortable following the composition, but only jumping in if there is something you can’t set straight on your own (or if you miss a call, for example).

When to ask: Ideally, enough in advance that the shadowing conductor can put some time in to study if they want. Except for certain very standard compositions, I would not be a very useful shadow if I were asked 5 minutes in advance! You may have access to a superstar conductor who would be fine, but it’s generally most polite to give some warning.

After the ringing: First, thank them! Then, depending on your preference, you may want to follow-up with your shadow to ask if they saw anything that they’d like to give you advice on. For example, I once had a shadow conductor tell me that they were not at all worried about me putting the calls in the right lead because the whole lead before the call I was as stiff as a board with tension! We both laughed and I made sure to be mindful of how tense I was during the ringing from then on.

Problem: I don’t want to mess up in front of others, or I don’t want to ask for a chance to try conducting. #

This problem is really tough! As one of the co-creators of Ringing Room, I see e-mails about this all the time from ringers — you are certainly not alone if you feel this way. A common email might go like this:

“I’d really love to use Ringing Room, but I’m so worried about messing up in front of my tower or wasting their time teaching me. Is there any solo practice mode on Ringing Room?"1

I think a useful first approach is to think about why you feel this way. Is your local tower (or perhaps just one or two local ringers) prone to rudeness when something doesn’t go quite right, and have you had poor experiences with trying new things in front of them before? Or do you strongly dislike the feeling of being imperfect in front of others, even if they are perfectly friendly about it?

In the first case: I’m very sorry that your local tower has such an unfriendly culture. In my view, it should be absolutely unacceptable to be rude or mean to fellow ringers, but I do know it happens. Are there any other towers you can go to to get this practice? Or can you try to find a group online to practice with, if there are no in-person towers you can try? Maybe your local area has a handbell band with a slightly friendlier bent.

In the second case: It is very difficult to mess up in front of other people. It can feel vulnerable and isolating, especially if you are one of the only learners, or if you don’t have any close, supportive social bonds with the other ringers in your tower. If you can try practicing on your own time before bringing a touch to the bell tower, it may help you feel more confident when the time comes to practice with your local. As someone who doesn’t have this particular problem, I’m not sure I have other advice; but I can let you know that it is likely that your local band enjoy your company and want to see you succeed. They probably mess up frequently as well! I know I mess up sometimes too. It’s a sign of growth and change.

Problem: My local leadership won’t let me have a go, or won’t let me try often enough. I’m “stuck” and not getting any better! #

You’ve asked and asked, but the tower captain won’t let you call anything! Or you get to call a touch once a month. This will definitely make progressing much more difficult. Maybe the tower captain is being unreasonable or maybe they’re not; in either case, you have to work with what you have.

Well, I have a small secret for you that almost no one explicitly tells you when you’re trying to learn to call or conduct. At a certain point, you will almost certainly need to become responsible for your own conducting progress, and you will need to organize your own conducting opportunities. Unless you are a tower captain or otherwise in charge of a regular practice night, you are unlikely to get the frequency of opportunity you need to truly progress.

What does it mean to organize your own opportunities? Well, it might take different forms. Maybe you form a handbell practice night and get your conducting practice in there. Maybe you book a tower for quarter peal attempts and invite 7 friends to come ring with you. In many of these cases, the organizer sets the band, including the conductor, and so you can choose yourself! This means you can get as much conducting experience as you’re willing to organize (and other people around you are willing to show up for!). By including virtual ringing opportunities, you could practically have conducting opportunities lined up every night.

Having to set up your own opportunities does require extra work. And, for some people, that’s particularly annoying because it doesn’t feel like relevant work; it’s very social and involves inviting people and setting times and sending emails or making phone calls to local towers. However, the fact of the matter is that someone has to do that work, or there are no quarter peal attempts or peal attempts. It may as well be you, if you want to conduct them! Try to see it as a chance for growth. Plus, you get to know ringers in your local community better as you organize attempts or practice nights, which is often fulfilling in itself!


This set of problems and ideas for solutions is not comprehensive, and not every idea will work for every person. Are you encountering other difficulties in your conducting progress? Or do you have other thoughts on how people might get better practice? Contact me and I may add them to this space.

Notes #


  1. These emails have decreased in frequency since Wheatley the Ringing Room bot was released, in collaboration with its developers↩︎