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story.lead_photo.caption Jim Norys practices change bell ringing at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville. A small hand bell choir performs the centuries-old style of ringing before worship services each Wednesday. - Photo by J.T. Wampler

A small choir at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Fayetteville has been practicing the centuries-old art of change bell ringing for years, but not on the usual massive tower bells found in cathedrals.

Photo by J.T. Wampler
Jonathan Heintz (from left), Mary Miller, Charles Rigsby and Jim Norys, members of the English change bell group at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, signal the beginning of services by ringing hand bells. j.
Photo by J.T. Wampler
Mary Miller (left) and Charles Rigsby practice change bell ringing, which differs from traditional melody-based music. The practice is most common in churches with bell towers featuring large, bronze bells but can also be done on hand bells. The bells are rung in a series of patterns or “changes.”
Photo by J.T. Wampler
Members of the English change ringing handbell choir at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville (from left) Jim Norys, Jonathan Heintz, Mary Miller and Charles Rigsby signal the beginning of services Feb. 1.

This choir has embraced change ringing on a much smaller scale -- on hand bells.

The choir can be heard ringing the call to worship each Wednesday evening.

Directed by Charles Rigsby, the English change bell ringers rehearse each Wednesday before the service. It's a small group with only a handful of members, most wheedled into joining by the enthusiastic Rigsby. He formed the choir not long after taking the job at St. Paul's in 1999.

"It comes and goes in interest," Rigsby said of the group.

Change ringing was made popular in England in the 1600s and continues there today. According to the North American Guild of Change Ringers, the tower bells were used to "tell the time of day and to call people to church services." The bells also were tolled for the dead and rung to celebrate weddings.

Change ringing is found in churches and cathedrals across the United States, too, but it's not quite as common. Arkansas is home to two active bell tower ringing groups, according to the guild -- Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Little Rock and First Presbyterian Church in Texarkana. Both towers have eight bells.

Hand bell change ringing groups are also scattered across the country in churches without bell towers.

In change ringing -- whether with tower bells rung by pulling a rope as those in Little Rock and Texarkana or in hand-held versions -- the bells aren't used to perform conventional melodies, but are instead rung in an almost unending series of patterns, or changes. Depending on the number of bells, hundreds, thousands or millions of changes can be rung.

Tony Furnivall, an officer with the guild who lives in New York, is a ringer at one of the most famous change bell ringing towers in the country -- Trinity Church on Wall Street. He said hand bells are often used to teach those new to the practice before they take on the tower bells, so as not to disturb the neighbors by clumsily clanging the massive bronze bells.

"You get better by practicing," he said. "The thing is, you start off pretty awful."

Hand bells allowed those learning change ringing in late 17th-century, early 18th-century England the opportunity to practice on a smaller scale and in a more comfortable environment. In the dark days of winter, without modern central heating, the bell ringers would use hand bells for practice.

"You can take them down to the pub, which is warm and has an adequate supply of lubrication and a fire, and you can practice to your heart's content and you won't be making so much noise," Furnivall said. "They have a lot of the same attributes as the tower bells do, and once you make the noise it will last a long time unless you dampen it."

Furnivall said the basis of change ringing is simple.

"Two bells change places," he said. "That's it, and starting from that very simple basis if you have A and B you can ring AB or BA. But the concept is very limited if you just have two bells."

Adding bells offers a wider variety of patterns and a bigger challenge.

"Bell ringers usually start with one bell, but to make it more of a challenge hand bell ringers usually ring with two bells, so if it's a complicated pattern it's very, very difficult," Furnivall said.

On a recent evening, the change bell ringers of St. Paul's gathered to practice. Rigsby said the group sometimes includes children, as well as adults.

"They are learning it, too," he said. "It's just mathematical. The bells change places in the patterns. You have to work out the patterns in your head and ring by following your pattern. It's not like reading notes."

The bell ringers stood in a circle and Jim Norys gave the call to start, saying "Look to the trebles" and the ringers began.

Modern hand bell choirs found in most churches play hymns, carols and songs with melodies. The bell ringers hold the bells upright against their chest to begin and swing the bells forward to ring and back up to their chest to stop the ringing.

In change ringing on hand bells the ring isn't dampened. The peal is allowed to continue reverberating, creating a cascade of sound as more patterns are rung.

Jonathan Heintz said he joined the group at the urging of a friend.

"They were needing some new bell ringers, and Jim's son was playing and invited me to come along," he said. "I gave it shot."

He started with one bell and followed the numbers.

"Moving to two was harder," he said.

Mary Miller was singing in the choir and decided to also learn about change ringing on the bells. It's something she loves to do, she said.

"I love the sounds of the bells," she said.

St. Paul's doesn't have tower bells for change ringing, but Rigsby hopes that one day it will.

Information on change ringing, including the ringing societies in Arkansas, is available online at

Religion on 02/18/2017

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