Conducting Techniques 1: Structural Conducting

This article is the first in a short series about the techniques that I try to use when conducting on handbells. Here I am distinguishing between calling, meaning putting in the bobs and changes of method, and conducting, meaning also checking the correctness of the ringing and trying to correct mistakes when they occur. I should say at the outset that I am not claiming to be a very good handbell conductor. I have many limitations. Most of what we ring is on 8, I find it much more difficult to conduct if I don't ring the tenors, I know nothing about Stedman, and so on. However, on the positive side, we do manage to score quarters and peals from time to time; and some of the things we ring, for example recent quarters of spliced surprise major, would be considered by many people to be quite difficult even from the point of view of calling. So here goes, and I hope that some better handbell conductors will add their thoughts in the comments section.

Structural conducting

What I mean by this is comments based on the structure of the method, which are not aimed at a particular ringer and can help everyone to stay right or get right. The easiest instructions are "lead end" and "half lead". If everyone knows which place bells they are aiming for, then a clear instruction about the position of the lead end enables them to locate themselves and start the next lead correctly. The same applies to the half leads, assuming that everyone knows where the half leads occur in the work of the method.

Commentary on the position of the treble is also useful. Mostly we ring surprise methods, so announcing the treble's dodges is useful if the ringing gets rough. With our regular band, the ringer of 1-2 (usually this is Angela) will do the treble commentary if I am overloaded or making mistakes myself. All I need to do is look at her quizzically, and she tells us what she is doing until it no longer seems to be necessary. This system is the result of several years of ringing together.

As well as announcing the treble's dodges, we have evolved phrases for the treble's hunting steps. "Treble to 4ths" means that the treble is hunting down from 5ths place to 4ths place, between the 5-6 dodge and the 3-4 dodge. "Treble in" means the same as "treble to 2nds". I have a feeling that these instructions most often come in the second half of the lead, but when the treble is on the way to the back I would say "treble to 5ths", "treble to 7ths", and so on. Sometimes these comments on the position of the treble are because the treble has made a mistake, but not always; in general they help everyone to synchronise their positions based on their knowledge of how their work fits in with the treble. For example, in Yorkshire, the comment "treble to 7ths" would also mean that it's time for 5ths place bell to stop dodging and come away from the back.

Beyond the commentary on the treble's position, every method has its own vocabulary of structural comments. In methods that are Cambridge above the treble, the backwork is based on treble bob hunting above the treble, which is out of step with the treble's treble bob hunting. When the treble dodges, the other bells hunt, and vice versa. So the instructions "hunt above" and "dodge above" help to keep everyone synchronised. The more bells there are, the more useful this becomes.

In Yorkshire, we find that a useful landmark is the treble's 5-6 dodge, when 2nds place is made as part of the frontwork and everyone else dodges at the same time as the treble. It's easy to forget to make 2nds, for example when ringing the first or last lead of the course on the tenors. So instructions such as "here's the 2nds" or "treble's 5-6, 2nds made, everyone dodge" are often heard when we are practising Yorkshire with beginners.

Bristol has more landmarks than most of the common surprise major methods. As well as the lead end and half lead, there are the point blows on each side of the lead end and half lead. The point blows involve 4 bells simultaneously, so getting them in the right place is important for keeping everyone synchronised. The instructions are "handstroke point" or "backstroke point", sometimes adding "at the front" or "at the back", or alternatively "above" or "below" (i.e. above or below the treble). If the band can basically ring the method but is still not completely confident, this kind of instruction can stop hesitations or small trips from developing into big problems.

One of the reasons why London is more difficult than Bristol is that it has fewer landmarks. Apart from the lead end and half lead, there are really only the fishtails when the treble is in 3-4. Fishtails are described as "handstroke" or "backstroke" according to which stroke the pair of points are made at. The first fishtails in the lead are backstroke fishtails, and the ones towards the end of the lead are handstroke fishtails.

Most of the techniques I have described here, I learnt from Roger Bailey in my Imperial College days. He said that his approach to conducting was to give out as much information as possible, in the hope that it would help someone. There is a danger that too much commentary can make the band reliant on being told what to do. I remember that when I first started ringing Bristol with Roger, I found it a little irritating to have a detailed commentary when I myself knew what I was doing. With time I got used to it (and to be honest, I was never very good at Bristol in those days), and now I do it myself with our band, but I do try to keep structural comments to a minimum and stop the commentary as soon as the ringing has settled down after a mistake.

Finally, it's worth noting that these techniques can also be useful on tower bells. Bristol Royal, which is one of this year's methods at Scottish Association practices, is a case in point. Announcing the positions of the points helps everyone, but it only happens when one of the handbell ringers is the conductor. Another example was the Scottish Association weekend last year focussing on Zanussi Surprise Maximus. The first few times we tried to ring a course, handbell-style conducting (the frontwork has a lot in common with Bristol, and the backwork also has a lot of regularity) was instrumental in keeping trips under control and helping everyone to get through.