At St. Paul’s in Birmingham, ‘change ringers’ carry on centuries-old musical tradition

by Jon Reed

This article first appeared on on July 23, 2013.


BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Anyone who has stayed around in downtown Birmingham too long after work on a Monday has probably heard it. It’s the sound of church bells ringing, but not to the tune of any hymn or song. There doesn’t seem at first to be a rhyme or reason to it; no pattern, just clanging.

The sound, coming from the tower of the Cathedral of St. Paul on 3rd Avenue North near 22nd Street, isn’t a malfunction. It’s called English change ringing.

“The point of change ringing is to ring different combinations of the bells,” said Ted Clark, who was leading a group of five people ringing the bells Monday evening. “We don’t usually ring tunes.”

Clark and a group of several other people ring the bells a few times a week: practices on Mondays and Saturdays, performances on Sundays for the church service at St. Paul’s and for special events, including weddings. Monday practices usually run from about 6:30 to 8 p.m., and Saturday practices run from about 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Those moments are the only times change ringing can be heard in the state of Alabama. The tower at St. Paul’s is the only one like it in the state, Clark said. The North American Guild of Change Ringers has a map of all tower and handbell groups in the country.

The practice dates back to the 1600s in England, when the use of wheels in bell construction allowed ringers to very precisely control when and how the bells sounded. That also allowed the ringing of the bells to be structured in a less random way, but traditional music was difficult to do because every bell — every note — had to be rung by a different person. So changes, simple patterns and combinations of rings, were developed.

The church acquired the bells in 2006 and brought a trained change ringer down to teach a group here how to do it. Learning to ring the bells takes time because of how fragile the bells are and the fact that the same actions are repeated for long stretches of time. Clark said it takes about a year to learn how to control the ropes of the bells, and he was training someone Monday before practice.

Joe Roberts learned about it not long after the bells were installed.

“I said ‘that sounds really interesting, I’ll have to check that out,’ and I’ve been ringing here ever since,” he said.

While each bell rings a different note, and the church’s eight bells form a full octave, the ringers don’t follow traditional sheet music. They follow patterns and try to complete a certain number of combinations of rings — changes — in a row without stopping. Running through all of the possible changes — a “full peal” — means more than 5,000 combinations and takes about three hours, Clark said. A more common performance is the quarter peal, which means more than 1,200 combinations and runs about 45 minutes.

The group is always looking for people who want to help out. Contact information is available on the North American Guild of Change Ringers’ website.

Clark said you don’t have to be Catholic to be a part of the group. In fact, of the five people there Monday, only two were Catholic.

It also isn’t terribly difficult — it just takes practice and timing.

“You don’t have to be musically inclined,” Roberts said. “You just have to be able to count.”