The Tower Handbook
11.11 Teaching listening
a: When should we start teaching learners to listen?
It's very tempting to leave listening until after bell handling and learning to ring rounds, but don't be tempted. By that stage, a feeling for what ringing is like will already have developed. If listening is a part of that basic experience, it can be developed along with other skills. If listening is not part of the experience, then it is much harder to try to graft it on. For example, on a silent bell one may imagine that the bell would strike when it is pulled off and focus on that alone, whereas in reality it is only the prelude for the moment a second or so later when the bell really strikes. It is important to learn the habit of mentally aiming for the strike point.
Introduce the listening side of ringing right at the beginning. If possible give bell handling lessons with sound. With good sound control you can ring the bell open, otherwise you could use some form of quietener. See section 6.4i. If you have a simulator, then you can use that to provide sound without any external disturbance.
Follow the importance of listening through at each stage. Use the exercises below. When the learner is ringing rounds, show an interest in his or her striking. Comment if it is good, ask whether he or she can hear when there is a consistent error, show that you value good striking and enjoy listening to it.
b: How can we help someone who can't hear his or her bell?
This is mainly a problem for people who have not been taught to listen when they were learning. The problem is not failure to hear the bell, but rather an inability to pick out its sound from the others. This must seem dauntingly difficult to anyone who has not learnt how to do it, so it is not surprising that some stop trying.
To help, you can do three things:
- Show you care. A little encouragement goes a long way.
- Make sure the conditions are favourable (see below).
- Provide opportunities for some of the exercises below.
c: What conditions make listening easier or harder?
If the bells are very quiet in the ringing room, it is hard to hear what is happening, but making them louder may not make things better. To listen effectively you must pick out individual blows from the background sound, but opening a trap door would make both louder. If the bells made short sharp pings with no background sound they would be very easy to hear (but not very inspiring). With normal bells, things are much harder. The sounds run into each other with a lot of hum. If there is much rope noise, organs playing in the background or aircraft flying above things get harder still.
If the ringing room and bell chamber are very reverberant  then even though you can hear the bells, often quite loud, you will have difficulty picking out the sound of individual bells, ie listening in a useful sense. Some towers have solved this problem by fitting sound absorbent material to the inside of the tower walls. This does not affect the direct sound from the bells, but damps down the reflections that otherwise tend to smudge out the sound.
d: What exercises can we use to help develop listening?
All of these exercises force the ringer to listen in order to complete them. This contrasts with normal ringing, where it is possible to get to the end without listening. If your pupil does not strike very well, no one will be sure whether it is listening, bell handling, method mistakes, tiredness or whatever. Some of these exercises need special aids but others do not, so they are suitable for use in any tower.
- Saying dong
This is the same exercise we recommend for developing rhythm. See section 11.10f. It helps with listening too.
- Facing outwards
When ringing rounds, ask a ringer to turn to face out of the rope circle so the preceding rope is not visible. Ideally the following rope should not be visible either, since when ringing by rhythm it is possible to ring in front of a bell as well as following one. The act of turning round is itself a little disruptive so make sure the ringing is steady before calling for it. The other ringers must play their part by ringing steadily and certainly not changing rhythm in response to any errors of the ringer facing outwards .
- Commenting on another bell
Ask your pupil to stand next to you while you are ringing and tell you if you strike wide or close, and whether the bells next to you do so. If you do this with learners in the band, there will probably be plenty of errors to spot. If not, you can deliberately make some small errors (it is a practice). Whenever an error is missed, point it out. This exercise is quite hard, partly because people do not like commenting on others' faults, especially if they are not 'experts', but it is worth trying for variety. The alternative is probably just sitting out doing nothing.
- Ringing with a simulator
This removes ropesight and forces the ringer to rely on rhythm to place the bell, and on listening to detect (and hence correct) any imperfections. The other bells ring perfectly, so any error heard must be the ringer's own. This is much simpler than real ringing, where anyone at any time may be slightly in error. They can learn to control their own speed before having to contend with the vagaries of others and more public exposure of their inexperience .
- Using a striking simulator
A striking simulator generates ringing with repeatable errors. This means if people don't spot what is happening the first time, they can focus their ears on it again until they succeed. You can let them practise detecting individual errors or 'acting as tower captain' to make the corrections necessary to improve a piece of ringing. In both cases, they need to decide which bell is wide or close, the same skill they need to correct their own striking. See section 13.4d.
- Listening to good ringing
Listening to good ringing (live or recorded) should provide inspiration on what to aim for and can help cultivate the sense of pleasure which ringers should get from their ringing. When listening for practice (rather than just pleasure) one must develop an idealised mental copy of the rhythm one is listening to. Perfect ringing will always fit this exactly, but any blemishes or errors will show up against it. If one finds it hard to hear all of the bells, this mental rhythm will allow one to listen through the gaps without losing the feel of the rhythm. This is the level of critical attention necessary to correct one's own (tiny) errors so other people can have the pleasure of hearing perfect striking.
- Listening to training tapes of various sorts all helps to sharpen the ability to listen actively rather than just passively.
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