At the National Cathedral, ringing in the tweens

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 25, 2010; 8:52 PM

At one end of the 20-foot rope is Tessa Lightfoot, a 13-year-old American teenager topping the scales at 90 pounds. At the other, directly above her head, is a British-made bronze bell weighing more than a quarter of a ton.

Together, they make beautiful . . . silence.

Tessa heaves gamely up and down on the rope as the 627-pound bell, swinging madly through 360 degrees of arc, makes not so much as a ding. During ringing class in the bell tower of Washington National Cathedral, the clappers are stopped as a courtesy to nearby residents.

"We don't want to drive the neighbors crazy," explains instructor Quilla Roth as eight middle-schoolers line up to take their tugs behind her. "Especially when they're just learning, we don't like to sound horrendous."

It's an unusual elective - in several ways. The bells make no noise, and the ropes are hauled by bubbly little Quasimodos in skinny jeans and Aeropostale hoodies.

"It's actually really fun," says Tessa, an eighth-grader at National Cathedral School, next door to the Episcopal church on Mount St. Alban, the city's highest point. "There are really not many other places where you can do this."

In fact, the school says, it is one of only three in the country to offer courses in the ancient art of change ringing, the complex technique of sounding the grand, rhythmic peals of cathedral bells that mark occasions ranging from the end of a Mass to the end of a war.

Twice a week, groups of middle- and high-schoolers from the all-girls National Cathedral School on the Cathedral's Northwest grounds negotiate a route of hidden elevators and spiral stairs up the 300-foot Gloria in Excelsis bell tower, which boasts some of Washington's most stunning views. In a chamber beneath the carillon bells, 10 ropes hang through holes in the ceiling, each connected to bells ranging, in order of pitch, from 608 pounds to 3,588 pounds.

With hunks of metal the weight of Volvos swinging above them like pinwheels, even adult ringers are at risk of being pulled off their feet or tearing muscles. For several weeks, the girls pull only under the close supervision of their teachers.

But that mix of Anglican rite and adolescent verve is one of the signature charms of the Whitechapel Guild, as school's ringers are known.

"Let's be a little quiet, girls," admonishes instructor Alex Taft as he leads another clutch of chattering students past a cathedral altar near the hidden elevator. "Sorry, Jesus," says one of the girls, with a giggle that sets off all the others.

In the carpeted ringing chamber, however, the students are all attention as they line up around the raised circular platform beneath the hanging ropes. A chalkboard is marked with the complex ringing patterns, called methods, that they must learn. But for half an hour, Taft and Roth just drill the girls on the subtle musculature needed to control the bells.

The first step is to rock the bell into its up position, a point of exquisite balance at the top of its arc. That means getting the massive weight swinging on its wheel until it is flying back and forth in a complete circle, reversing direction with a pause at the apex.

Then, with a brute finesse that takes years to master, the ringer pulls just so, stopping the bell at the very top. It stays, brimming with potential energy, until the ringer sets it loose with a sharp pull, stopping it again at the top.

With that kind of control, the circle of ringers can execute their notes at the precise moment called for by the pattern they are playing. When a sequence is played repeatedly and rapidly, the result is the uniquely ecclesiastical cacophony of bells Taft describes as "a hypnotic cascade of sound."

Karen Lee, 15, a sophomore from Bethesda, puts it differently: "You feel like one note in a very large instrument."

Lee is in her second year of ringing. After practicing a pattern called "Plain Bob" on a set of hand bells with other upperclassmen, she runs through a couple of live sets on the real thing.

The clappers are still stopped with wooden devices, as they have been through history, but technology now provides the sound, at least during bell-ringing practice.

As the swinging bells pass through an infrared beam, a computer program on Quilla's laptop broadcasts a clang of exactly the right pitch at precisely the right moment. Through loudspeakers, Lee and the other ringers hear the bells as they sound when the clappers swing freely.

"It's a program called AbelSim," says Roth, as she taps away on the laptop, which sits near a rack of Ringing World magazines ("The weekly journal of church bell ringers since 1911"). "There's even an iPhone app for it now."

In the bell loft above, some bells are swinging as others are cocked and ready in precarious up positions. Stepping too close to any of the flying bells would be fatal. Warning signs are everywhere: "A Standing Bell Is Like a Loaded Gun," and "Any Jerk Can Kill You."

The Whitechapel Guild is as old as the bells themselves, formed soon after the tower was dedicated in 1964. (To mark the occasion, they rang a method called Steadman Caters for 3 hours and 25 minutes.) There were few experienced ringers in Washington at the time and a glee club teacher at NCS thought his girls would make fine trainees.

They did, and hundreds of girls have passed through since, playing after Friday cathedral services and for the school's own graduation each summer. They are rehearsing now for their annual Lessons and Carols service in December.

Some years, the ringers tour bell towers in other countries, usually including Great Britain, the ancient seat of change ringing. Many of the students go on to join the Washington Ringing Society, a group that provides "bands" of ringers for the cathedral and the bells of the Old Post Office Tower downtown.

"Whitechapel has really provided the backbone of cathedral ringing since the very beginning," says Roth, a retired federal IT worker who is a Tower Captain with the society.

Former NCS ringer Kathleen Barker, now a sophomore at Rice University in Houston, likened her Whitechapel Guild experience to a musical team sport.

"Everybody going up to the tower together on Wednesday and Friday afternoons, it was a very bonding thing to do," Barker says.

Although she hasn't found a practical application for her skills, she recalls a thrill at seeing change ringing appear in her calculus textbook as an example of cyclic patterns.

"I loved the whole mathematical organization of it," Barker says. "I'd love to keep doing it. Of course, I have to end up living somewhere where they have a bell tower."

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