Learning and calling compositions of spliced

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.

Mental fatigue is a ringers biggest problem

As Simon has recently mentioned, we recently rang a peal of 23-spliced in hand with David and Henry Pipe.  Now, Simon has rung this now a few times, David Pipe probably a billion times, and I'm pretty sure Henry has now rung it at least five times.  This was my second time attempting this, and I thought it might be useful to share the experience of ringing right at the edge of your ability - again.

Simon is very quiet about this, but we had about two weeks notice of the attempt, and so I spent quite a lot of our summer holidays glued to Abel practising parts of the peal, practising individual methods on my phone, and carrying around my colour-coordinated notecards for quick reference.  Actually it all seemed a lot more familiar - and this was a problem.  It's hard to hammer in those methods when your brain is saying 'yeah yeah I've got it.'  But, in truth, it all did come together a little more easily. 

But did I ring better?

In our first attempt I spent several weeks going over each part, nailing down the different place bell orders, and focusing most of my attention on the sets of leads that I would actually be ringing.  When it came time to ring the thing, of course, I didn't have anything like enough leftover brain to remember all that information, but the endless rehearsal definitely helped.

This time, for the first few parts I felt very confident in the methods and my concentration was good too.  I was better able to get myself straight, but I grew trippier as the peal progressed, and embarrassingly, developed a tendency to swap my bells over.  I am usually very good at keeping them the right way around, so I was a little surprised at myself, and quite red-faced too.  My problem was mental fatigue.

Different types of fatigue

This is one type of mental fatigue:  you make a small mistake, which, in correcting, leads to a few more, and before long you are trying to avoid the Avalanche of Failed Peal Attempt.  Ringing in spliced is your friend because you get to start fresh with every new lead.  However, at this point the mental monologue goes something like this:

"Remember your place bells!  Got to do better! Come on, and concentrate!  Concentrate harder!"

All of that uses up valuable mental energy, and it is best not to have that particular monologue ever.  With practice, this can be avoided or at least minimised, by totalling compartmentalising past errors and continuing to think in the now and the immediate changes ahead of you. 

Here is the more insidious type of mental fatigue:  you know what you are doing, but somehow your reaction times start to slow.  As you get to a lead end, you are slow loading the next method, registering your place bells, and slow to start the next lead.  This causes trips and crashing, and you are constantly trying to catch up.  Which makes you more tired.  And so on.  It is the equivalent of your legs giving out under you. 

Conserving mental energy

Whatever level you ring at, if you are ringing at the edge of your ability, the effort of concentration is large.  The key to being able to ring for long periods of time is to find and use all those little 'easy' parts to rest your brain.  Of course, you can't get too relaxed because you need to be able to swing into high concentration mode as needed. 

Like everything else, it takes practice, and it means trying to ring for longer periods without stopping to build up your stamina.  Lots of learning and rehearsal on simulators help too.  Clearly I have some way to go to increase my concentration fitness - and I'm open to ideas!

23-Spliced Challenges

The week before last we were away on the annual "Hulliday", a big group of ringers with families who have been going on holiday together for a few years. These days the holiday doesn't involve much ringing (the amount of running is increasing steadily), but there is usually some handbell ringing. This year David Pipe suggested that it would be fun for me and Tina to ring a peal of 23-spliced with him and Henry, which we did (at the second attempt).

Norman Smith's 23-spliced has been rung almost 40 times on handbells, but there are other 23-spliced challenges that have been taken up much less frequently. Perhaps they would appeal to capable bands who are looking for something different.


The most obvious challenge is Steven Chandler's composition, which has much more difficult methods than Norman Smith's. It has become a popular test piece for very advanced tower bell bands, but as far as I can tell it has only been rung three times on handbells:

30/5/1992 by Paul Mounsey, Peter Townsend, David Brown and John Hughes-D'Aeth (silent and non-conducted).

7/5/2009 by Richard Pearce, David Pipe, John Hughes-D'Aeth (C) and Alex Byrne.

8/6/2012 by Thomas Hinks (C), Jennifer Earis, David Brown and Philip Earis.

It's remarkable that the first performance was silent and non-conducted. I remember being in Roger Bailey's office for a peal, when one of our ringers told Roger that this had been done. He immediately guessed all four members of the band.

These were preceded by a peal that was essentially Chandler's with two method substitutions (I don't know why):

24/10/1988 by Kathleen Baldwin, John Peverett, Roger Baldwin and Kevin Lucas.

The 25-method extension of Norman Smith's

This arrangement by Jonathan Porter and Roger Baldwin adds Belfast and Hereford. As it's all the work of 25 methods, it's slightly longer at 5600. It has been rung twice:

8/9/1988 by Tim Peverett, Alison Surry, Roger Bailey and John Peverett (C).

23/9/1990 by Tim Peverett, Alison Surry, John Peverett and Roger Bailey (no conductor published).

The variation of Norman Smith's with every lead different

This arrangement by James Taylor makes some method substitutions to eliminate repeated place bells (such as 3rds place bell in Cambridge, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Superlative). It has only been rung once:

20/12/1995 by Simon Gay, David Brown, Roger Bailey and Michael Trimm.

Don Morrison's compositions with Norman Smith's methods

Don Morrison has produced several compositions with the methods from Norman Smith's, but in a different order and with cyclic part ends. Some of them have variable hunt and are all the work for all eight bells. When these were published in the Ringing World several years ago, I thought they would become popular as an alternative to the original composition, but they don't seem to be rung all that often, and as far as I can tell, none of them have been rung on handbells. For the compositions that aren't variable hunt, the main challenge for an experience band would be getting used to having the methods in a different order, as the familiar calling has become so ingrained.


A few years after the publication of Norman Smith's composition, Tim Pett produced a seven-part all-the-work composition with an easier set of methods. Instead of Glasgow, Preston, Tavistock and Whalley it has Aldenham, Ealing, Ickleton and Ospringe. It might be considered a retrograde step to make Norman Smith's easier; nevertheless, this composition does not seem to have been rung on handbells.


A couple of days after our holiday peal of Norman Smith's, a band rang John Leary's composition on tower bells. This composition of 23-all-the-work is infrequently rung. In comparison with Chandler's, it has a greater variation in place bell orders, still with a challenging set of methods and with a combination of 4ths and 8ths place bobs. It hasn't been rung on handbells.

A new member of the Scottish Surprise Major club

On Wednesday we followed up on a promise from the recent handbell day, by getting Peter Kirton from St Andrews to come to Albany Quadrant for a peal of Yorkshire. Satisfyingly, we succeeded first time, scoring quite a decent peal. Of course we would like to ring more peals with this band, but we're suffering from geography; nevertheless, we'll have to see when we can get together again. We've decided that Lincolnshire is easier as a next step than Cambridge, so that can be the next target.

The 16th Scottish Handbell Day

We had a handbell day on Saturday 7th May, and it was one of the most satisfying so far. Following the pattern of recent handbell days, we scheduled practice sessions before quarter peal attempts, but in several cases the people in a practice session rang a quarter anyway. The quarter peal total was 8: 4 of Bob Major, 2 of Kent Major and 2 of Yorkshire Major. We also practised a variety of methods including, unusually, Stedman Caters.

It was particularly pleasing to be able to support and advance the St Andrews handbell band, which rang its first quarter just before the handbell day. That was Plain Bob Minor, and was the first handbell quarter for Isabella and Philip, and Peter's first in hand as conductor. On handbell day, Philip rang a quarter of Bob Major, Isabella rang two, and Peter called a quarter of Bob Major and rang a quarter of Yorkshire. Subsequently there has been a peal of Kent Major by an East Scotland band, three of whom were at the handbell day.

At the end of the day we tried some rounds and simple change ringing on 16 and on 22, and practised Cambridge Maximus for what was supposed to be a peal attempt on Sunday morning. It became clear, however, that we had little chance of scoring a peal, so Sunday morning was downgraded to a practice and a possible quarter peal. In the end we practised hard and eventually rang a decent plain course, then called it a day. We are getting much better at the 12-bell rhythm and finding our places; now we need to absorb the patterns of each pair so that we can ring without having to concentrate so hard on the lines. I will write some more articles about the characteristics of each pair, as time permits. 


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