HEAVENLY SOUND: Meet the National Cathedral bell ringers

- Every Sunday, in a tradition that dates back more than 50 years, a small group gathers in the bell tower at the National Cathedral in northwest Washington.

They wait for the ring of the old-fashioned phone attached to the wall, alerting them that the service below is over. It’s time for them to ring the bells.

There are 10 bells:  10 notes of a D major scale, ranging in size from 608 lbs. to 3588 lbs. They can swing up to 35 mph, 360 degrees, and if not handled correctly, “it only takes one jerk to kill you,” or so reads one of the tower’s warning signs.

But when 10 experienced ringers come together, the sound is quite melodic, according to one bell ringer.

“I love the sound of the bells,” she says. “It’s most unusual, and when it’s done correctly, it’s a beautiful form of music.”

The skill is a demanding one that requires concentration and awareness.

“If it were easy, nobody would bother doing it,” says another bell ringer, who started ringing in the National Cathedral tower in the fall of 1963.

The unique sound is so interconnected that if one ringer gets completely out of place, the ringing essentially needs to stop.

“You need to be able to hear, see and pull the rope in such a way that is very precise in relation to everyone else’s.”

There are 55 active towers in North America, and people who are skilled can ring anywhere.

“Any bell tower in the world – walk in the door, and you’re welcomed like you’ve been old friends.”

It’s not uncommon for ringers to hear bells in their sleep, they say. The sound is loud. The echo resonates. 
But at the end of the day, it’s about more than a pure, majestic tone. It builds character and camaraderie, too.

The ringers won’t deny that the end goal is, however, flawlessness.

“Sometimes it is, and when it is, it’s breathtaking.” 

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