Making Changes

Change ringers ringing the bells

Lucy Horowitz, Xinru Yin and Diya Gandhi in the Mitchell Tower.

How the Guild of Change Ringers Pivoted to Continue a Century-Old University Tradition

By Anne Hartman Raether

Like most Recognized Student Organizations, UChicago’s Guild of Change Ringers had to think creatively to stay active in the 2020–2021 school year. Typically, RSO members gathered in the Reynolds Club’s Mitchell Tower, where they practiced ringing the Alice Freeman Palmer Bells, the oldest set of university change ringing bells in the United States. But without access to the tower and the need to stay socially distanced, the ringers had to seek other options.

They leaned on modern technology to practice the centuries-old art of change ringing, gathering for weekly practices on Ringing Room, a website that was developed during the pandemic to allow change ringers to hone their skills virtually. Change ringing originated in England centuries ago and involves ringing a set of bells by pulling ropes. Each individual is assigned to a bell, and they ring their bells in different rhythmic sequences, or permutations. Each bell must be played once, but not more than once, in a permutation.

While practicing virtually, the ringers hit keys on their keyboard instead of ringing a bell. Even without traditional practices, guild members found their virtual meetings to be beneficial in not only developing a passion for change ringing but also forming connections.

“It was sad that we didn’t get to ring in the tower for a year, but even so, I think I’m all the more prepared to do it after so many months of virtual practice,” said Lucy Horowitz, a second-year majoring in math and astrophysics. “We got to ring with people from all over the world, which would certainly not have been possible if everyone had to descend on the tower every week.”

“Gathering weekly to ring virtually was one of the highlights of my year,” added Diya Gandhi, a second-year molecular engineering major. “There is always something exciting to learn.”

Becoming a change ringer doesn’t necessarily require musical talents, said Tom Farthing, University of Chicago Change Ringing Master. Instead—to ensure the permutations are played correctly—it requires intense focus, teamwork, and some physical activity.   

Because of the pandemic, many of UChicago’s guild members have never stepped foot in Mitchell Tower and have instead learned change ringing solely by practicing virtually, in addition to playing with handbells during outdoor practices on the Quad. The practice paid off: Horowitz, Gandhi, and second-year Xinru Yin earned the North American Guild of Change Ringers’ Jeff Smith Memorial Young Ringer Award. Among the requirements for the award, the ringers must complete at least one quarter peal. In a peal—a peak achievement for a change ringer—the ringers play the maximum number of permutations possible in varying order without repeating a single permutation. Participating in a peal requires hours of intense focus.

“Doing the quarter peal was difficult at first because of challenges with latency, but once I finished that, I was thrilled to have succeeded in taking such an important step in change ringing,” Horowitz said. “I got to learn an entirely new way to think about music.”