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Ringers Relish Role In Making Cathedral Bells Peal

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Ringing Master Quilla Roth shows students the proper ringing technique at the Washington National Cathedral.
Robbie Feinberg
Ringing Master Quilla Roth shows students the proper ringing technique at the Washington National Cathedral.

To the uninitiated, bell ringing looks easy. It seems like all you need to do is grab a rope, pull, and you've created beautiful music. But when you watch Quilla Roth demonstrate the proper ringing technique to students at the Washington National Cathedral, it's obvious that this stuff requires some real skill.

"We can't say to somebody, 'You need to pull with this many pounds worth of force,'" Roth says. "So we tell them, 'Don't pull too hard" and "Don't pull too soft,' and we'll help you figure out what's too hard and what's too soft. So there aren't really precise things that you can tell someone."

Roth is the ringing master for the cathedral. She's in here almost daily, teaching and ringing with several dozen other ringers. The bells have been in the cathedral for almost 50 years, and Roth has been here right alongside them. She teaches change ringing, the process in which 10 ringers pull ropes, each controlling a large bell at the other end. Together, the ringers produce a loud, rhythmic sound that echoes on to the streets of D.C. every Sunday.

For many beginners, it can take months, and sometimes even years, of practice before they finally get to play true methods and songs. Day after day, it's just pull, pull, pull, with seemingly no end in sight. But if a ringer can stay committed and get through that tough first stage, it's worth it.

Take Mary Clark.

Clark's life revolves around music and bells. She runs her own hand bell choir. She's the director of instrumental music at her church. And of course, she rings every Sunday at the cathedral.

It all began back in 1964. A friend offered to give Clark a tour of the cathedral and show her the bells, which had only been installed a year earlier. At first she resisted, but eventually, she relented and toured the tower. It was love at first ring.

"It was a high. It really was," Clark says. "I looked forward to every Tuesday night ringing. It was a highlight of my week. I could not wait to get to the bell tower."

From there, her love grew to include hand bells and other musical choirs. Except for a few years here and there, Clark's played at the cathedral every Sunday for more than 45 years.

Clark says change ringing is less musical composition and more team sport. And when you watch the ringers of the Washington Ringing Society, that's obvious. The ringers gather in a circle, ropes in hand and bells at the ready. As they begin to play a tune, each ringer's gaze shifts from one rope to the next. They watch eyes, hands, feet, making sure they're coming in right on time. It's like they're speaking their own silent language, communicating with quick glances and head nods.

"It's almost impossible to explain to someone who's never done teamwork," Clark says. "But if you're talking to a baseball team, basketball team, a football team, they know what you're talking about. Because you're only as good as the weakest person on that team. And the wonderful opportunity to get together and make it work is something you can't equal in any other way."

But that hard work is what makes the ringers love this stuff. You might think of ringing as just pulling a rope, but Clark says that when everything comes together, it becomes so much more. It's almost like a trance.

"It lifts you off the ground emotionally," Clark says. "I mean, not physically. It better not! But you are. You're emotionally lifted to a higher level."

To the general public, the ringers are almost a secret society in D.C., cooped high up in the cathedral tower. But Quilla Roth, the ringing master likes it that way. She says the ringers may not be visible, but they're important.

"We have rung for funerals for some former presidents," Roth says. "We have rung for 9/11. We have rung for the hostages in Iran. We have rung for positive things, for sorrowful things. And there is something very, it feels very special to get to do that and participate in things important to the nation. And I think it's very special to get to do that."

Photos: Ringing Bells

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