We are still working on Horton's Four, but I won't have anything new to say about ringing it until we eventually score. Meanwhile, here are some thoughts about how I learn and call a difficult composition of spliced. I hope that readers who are better conductors will comment from their own experience. I must admit that most of this article isn't particularly handbell-specific.
I've done more of this kind of conducting on tower bells than on handbells, and my first comment is that on handbells I need to learn the composition much more thoroughly. Ringing the Horton's Four methods on handbells takes a lot of concentration, so I don't have the spare brainpower to think at length about what might be coming up next; there's no time to run over sections of composition in my mind to remind myself of how it works. I know Horton's Four much better now than I ever did when we rang it in the tower.
My approach is to build up my knowledge of the composition in a series of layers, with progressively more detail.
Layer 1: the sequence of methods and calls
This is the foundation for everything: it's the basic information that I need in order to call the composition, even if I lose track of coursing orders or anything else. I learn the sequence of method abbreviations (usually their initial letters), interspersed with the word "bob". I think of it as a series of lines, exactly as the composition is set out on the page. For example, here is the beginning of Horton's Four in the usual notation:
23456 M B W H ----------------------------------- 35264 - BBL.BFF 42563 - - BLLG.BFBFLL. 64523 - GB.L 26543 - LG.B 64235 - FBFLLG.BFB
I recite this to myself as follows: "B B L bob B F F; B L L G bob B F B F L L bob; ..." with a little pause at each course end. For this composition, I have simply learnt this sequence by rote. It takes many many repetitions until it sticks. It's like learning a poem, but much worse because of the complete lack of meaning. I divide the composition into sections and work on one section at a time. For Horton's Four I divided it into three roughly equal sections and a fourth, longer, section for the split tenors block. Later I realised that there is a more natural division into three sections, because the course ends 12356478 and 12364578 come up approximately one third and two thirds of the way through.
The exception to the system of learning the sequence of method initials is when there are several consecutive leads of the same method. At one point in Horton's Four there are five consecutive leads of Glasgow. Instead of counting five leads, I know that the block finishes with a bob at home, and I just ring Glasgow until I get to the right point to call a home. It's a golden rule of conducting to avoid counting as much as possible; it's safer to work with landmarks.
I usually start with the first section until I have mastered it, then move on to the second section, and so on. After that I start reciting the whole composition from the beginning. This tends to result in knowing the beginning of the composition better than the end. Bernard Taylor once told me that he starts with the last section, because he prefers to know the end of the composition very thoroughly and reckons that if necessary he can struggle through the early courses until he gets onto more familiar ground.
There are other ways of trying to make the rote learning easier. Sometimes it's possible to make words out of short sequences of methods. This doesn't work for Horton's Four because there aren't any vowels. Someone, I think it was Robin Hall, suggested using E instead of F for Belfast. Another possibility is to construct sentences whose words start with the letters in the composition. One has stuck in my mind, which definitely came from Robin Hall, although I have no idea which composition it relates to: Bernard nearly nobbles Chris, but clever Chris lunges neatly back, shouting "little bastard". Going by the letters, perhaps it's from a peal of 8-spliced.
Some conductors learn the sequence of methods without including the bobs, and separately learn the bobs in terms of whether they are wrongs, middles, homes and so on. They then integrate the bobs and the methods while calling the composition. I prefer the security of having the complete sequence of methods and bobs as a single stream, because that's exactly what has to be called.
Layer 2: the calling positions
Next I learn which calling positions the bobs are in. The first course of Horton's Four has a before, the second course has a middle and a home, the third course has a wrong, and so on. This information is connected to the first layer, because obviously there's a correspondence between a calling position and a sequence of methods that gets the tenor to that calling position. For example, the BBL in the first course would take the tenor to 2nd place bell, so the bob is a before. Familiarity with the place bell orders of the methods, and with the shapes of courses that can be constructed from them, makes it easier to see how it all fits together. For example, the course LG.L obviously has a bob at wrong because Glasgow with a bob becomes a Cambridge place bell order, and LCL is a well-known three-lead course with the wrong calling position after the second lead. In a composition with a greater variety of place bell orders, or with less familiar place bell orders, it is less clear how the calling positions fit into the sequence of leads, so there is also a lot of rote learning in this layer.
Layer 3: landmarks and checkpoints
I like to learn some distinctive course ends and/or coursing orders that come up at strategic points in the composition. For example, in Horton's Four, the course end 12356478 occurs at the end of the 7th course (which is FFBFBFF.F). The course end 12364578 occurs later on, at the end of the course L.B.B.G.B.L which is shortly before the beginning of the split tenors section. I learn these so that I can check that the ringing is correct, rather than to be able to jump us onto the right change if things have gone wrong. If a checkpoint doesn't come up properly, we can stop at that point instead of waiting to find that the peal doesn't come round at the end.
Sometimes coursing orders are more useful than course ends. I don't think I can transpose the coursing orders in the split tenors section of Horton's Four, but there is a course with two consecutive leads of London in the coursing order 457236. This coursing order has mnemonic features: it's three two-digit multiples of 9; the last two digits (36) are half of the middle two digits (72). Also I find it relatively easy to observe the coursing order in London. So this is a potentially useful checkpoint a couple of courses into the most difficult part of the peal. Another coursing order a little later in the split tenors section is 437256, which is good because both 3-4 and 5-6 are coursing.
Layer 4: practising the coursing order transpositions
I have spent a lot of time running through the coursing order transpositions in my mind, to develop familiarity with the coursing orders that come up and the way that the composition moves between them. In a previous article I wrote about the idea of using the coursing orders as a way of remembering the calling; it all helps. In Horton's Four, I'm not trying to memorise all the coursing orders, but they now seem familiar and expected as I transpose them throughout the peal (at least in the tenors-together section). If I miscall it, which happened in this week's practice, it becomes obvious because the wrong coursing orders appear.
Calling the composition
Assuming that the composition has been thoroughly learnt so that it can be recited flawlessly, it's then a question of playing it back at the right speed (much slower than practice recitation speed) and balancing the mental attention between the composition, the coursing order and the methods. The point about the right speed is significant. Reciting the composition at high speed develops a certain rhythm, but when the rhythm is lost by feeding out the sequence of methods more slowly, it can suddenly seem much less obvious what comes next. Mentally reciting a short section at speed, to build up momentum again, can help, but risks diverting too much attention from ringing the methods.
Soon after the beginning of each lead, I like to mentally prepare exactly what I'm going to say at the end of the lead. This might be a change of method, with or without a bob, or it might be nothing if there are consecutive leads of the same method. As the lead end approaches, I take care to make the calls at exactly the right moment: bob during the change of the treble's backstroke snap, change of method during the change of the treble's handstroke lead. If there is a bob, I do the coursing order transposition before making the call, roughly when the treble is moving between 3-4 and 1-2. This means that if there is a problem at the lead end, I'm ready to tell people which place bells they are becoming.
When the easier methods come up, I try to think ahead a little so that I know what's coming next in the composition. I hate mistakes in Bristol, not because they seriously jeopardise the ringing (we are pretty good at recovering in Bristol, these days), but because I rely on those leads for a little bit of respite and the chance to make sure I'm not going to run out of calls. It's an enormous distraction to have to start announcing when the points and half lead occur.
The most important duty of the conductor is to call the composition correctly; it's much more important than ringing the methods perfectly. I remember calling a peal of 8-Spliced Royal on tower bells, a long time ago, in which I became completely lost towards the end of a lead; nevertheless I managed to call a bob and a change of method at exactly the right point; the rest of the band helped me to recover in the next lead and we scored the peal. That would be much more difficult on handbells, of course.