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Simulators in training

Over the years several Branch towers have installed a simulator of one sort or another but I don’t know how many are still operational (or in regular use). To recap in case you aren’t familiar with the idea, a simulator lets someone practice ringing with a perfect band, but without needing any other ringers (perfect or otherwise). You ring a bell as normal, but it is silenced and connected to the simulator, which makes the sound at the instant when the bell would strike. The simulator also makes the sounds of all the other bells (you can choose how many) striking perfectly.

Peter Cummins invented the simulator 35 years ago. The early ones were expensive hand built machines, but in the 1980s David Bagley’s conversion kit for a BBC computer brought the price right down. Nowadays most simulators use a cast off PC for the processing, but you still need a sensor to detect the bell movement.

Despite the obvious breakthrough, for years very few were installed. Ringers can be a conservative bunch, biased towards how things have always been done. Most of us were taught to ring visually, and many still see ringing as an inherently visual activity even if they have developed reasonable rhythm and listening skills. So ringing without ropes to watch may seem alien to many, and the thought that novices could learn to do it might even undermine their perception of their own skills.

More simulators have been installed in recent years, after the introduction of the multi-bell interface (connecting to all bells rather than just one) and with the use of real bell sounds instead of beeps. But many of them have only been used as a form of sound control – ringing all the bells as normal, but with the sound generated electronically inside the tower. There are probably simulators in around 1 in 20 towers, but far fewer are used as training aids, and many people who ‘attend a simulator practice’ are unaware that such use is possible.

Ringing with a simulator helps to bridge the gap between solo bell handling practice (where there is no attempt to synchronise the bell to an external rhythm) and ringing with other ringers (where the synchronisation task is complicated by the variability of other ringers, and where listening to the confused result is much more difficult). The simulator allows the trainee to start ringing to a set rhythm much earlier in the training cycle, and it makes it possible to do so for far more of the available time than when taking part in a typical practice. Above all the trainee’s task is much simpler. There is no question of ‘which sound is mine?’ or ‘is that me out of place or someone else?’. As well as providing an ideal stable environment, perfect striking from the other bells means ’if I can hear an error it is me’.

Anyone who has not used a simulator in training may think that ‘ringing without ropesight is too difficult for a learner ’ or ’learning to listen is too difficult to do until you can ring well enough to have some brain power left over’, but neither is true. Novices who have never rung with other ringers generally find ringing with a simulator easier than established ringers who have become dependent on seeing ropes. And learning to listen as an integral part of ringing from the start is easier than trying to graft it on as an extra skill later, after developing a visual ringing style.

There is one important caveat. The simulator is an excellent teaching tool, but it doesn’t teach everything. Trainees need to develop ropesight in order to make sense of what is happening around them, so as well as teaching them to ring rhythmically and to correct by ear, you also need to teach them ropesight. It is far better to do that as an explicit ‘navigation’ skill than just assuming that it will somehow emerge from the habit of looking at the rope being followed. There is one other drawback to using ‘a simulator’, where only one person at a time can ring. Most towers with a simulator are at the stage that schools were when they had ‘a computer’. When simulators were very costly the idea of having several would have been unthinkable, but they aren’t any more. If you have a sensor on every bell (which most installations do these days) you don’t need to add any more, you just connect another (free) old laptop to them. At a stroke you can solve the problem of trainees having to sit around and take turns.

There are some practicalities. The extra laptops need more sockets to plug into. Ideally you should specify that as part of the initial kit, but if you already have a simulator with only one socket, you can buy an expander to provide more sockets. You also need to use headphones so the trainees don’t hear each other’s ringing (one might be ringing Rounds on 6, another on 8 and another hunting). If you can locate the laptops behind the bells being rung, you can use ordinary headphones with the cable run down the trainee’s back. Otherwise you need wireless headphones (on multiple channels). It also helps if the instructor can ‘listen in’ on another pair of headphones. There is more practical advice on the Guild website.

Is it worth it? For 20 years I used a single (BBC based) simulator. Four years ago we invested in sensors on all bells and installed two (Abel) simulators, but almost immediately it was clear that two was not enough. We now have three, which are regularly all in use at our pre-practice sessions. I expect that we will add a fourth in due course, but I don’t see us ever catching up with the eight that they have at the Worcester teaching centre.

I would hate to go back to teaching without a simulator, with nothing to fill the gap between solo bell handling and collective ringing, and without the ability to continue to develop rhythmic ringing skills alongside trainees learning to cope with the realities of ‘real ringing’.

John Harrison, Branch Training Co-ordinator

For advice on installing and using simulators see: http://odg.org.uk/education/Simulators.php 

For more on the background to simulators, on my website, see: http://jaharrison.me.uk/Ringing/Simulators/  


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