Bell ringers bring fresh ap(peal) to St Andrew's

Change-ringing band, the only one in S-E Asia, helps cathedral's bells produce better sounds

One of the team's trainers David Smith (at right) and tower captain Benjamin Tai (beside him) among bell ringers at St Andrew's Cathedral yanking on ropes attached to a custom-made structure that holds the bells, swinging them rhythmically through a
One of the team's trainers David Smith (at right) and tower captain Benjamin Tai (beside him) among bell ringers at St Andrew's Cathedral yanking on ropes attached to a custom-made structure that holds the bells, swinging them rhythmically through a 360-degree arc. This style of sounding the bells, known as change ringing, produces a fuller, richer and better-projected sound.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

St Andrew's Cathedral is home to South-east Asia's only change-ringing band - an antique art of bell-sounding that can be traced back to 1600s England.

The team, comprising between 12 and 15 people - most of whom are Singaporeans - operates from within a hidden chamber in the belfry of the church in City Hall. The chamber is accessible by a narrow, winding stairway.

On Friday, the group, which was trained over the past four months by visiting experts from England and Australia, rang the bells for the cathedral's bicentennial Christmas carol service which was attended by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and other esteemed guests.

Forming a circle, with some on tiptoes, the bell ringers yanked on heavy ropes attached to a custom-made structure that holds the bells, swinging them rhythmically through a 360-degree arc in a descending musical scale.

According to tower captain Benjamin Tai, 42, the group has mastered the first level required to be proficient in change ringing. There are a total of five possible levels.

Change ringing is a method new to the cathedral. It follows the institution's realisation some two years ago - on the prompting of Australian bell-ringing expert Laith Reynolds - that the eight bells at the monument had been rung "incorrectly" for more than a century.

An iron clapper had been used to beat the sides of the bronze contraptions. The bells, weighing 4,871kg in total, were cast without suspension loops, and were bolted to their frame, preventing them from being swung.

The bells were actually designed to be rung by swinging instead of striking them. This style of sounding the bells, known as change ringing, produces a fuller, richer and better-projected sound. By swinging through a larger arc, a ringer can exercise more control of the strike interval.

The bells were given to the cathedral in 1889 by the heirs of an English captain, and cast in the John Taylor and Co Foundry in Loughborough, England - the same place the bells of St Paul's Cathedral in London were manufactured.

 
 
 

Dr Tai, who works as a research scientist, said the new system of ringing is much more challenging than the old one. "We now have to use proper techniques to manage the weight and movement of each bell. Precision and controlled strength are needed. Previously, all we had to do was pull a device to hit the bell from a distance."

One of the team's trainers, Australian David Smith, 71, likened change ringing to controlling the weight of a large car. He cautioned that it is not as simple as it looks but easy to pick up with practice. He added: "Bell ringers can be injured if a heavy rope drops onto them and catches a body part by accident."

The cathedral's project to restore the eight bells and cast five new ones at the John Taylor and Co Foundry, then hang them all on a new, galvanised steel bell frame in the belfry, cost about $600,000, on top of other works.

There are more than 6,000 bell towers with change-ringing peals worldwide, and are found in countries such as England and Australia.

The cathedral's set is the only bell tower in South-east Asia with a working ringing peal.

Said Dr Tai: "It's a privilege, honour and blessing to ring these bells for one of the civic district's key national monuments. The bells have always been rung to herald important services and events. They are a call to worship."

In the 1600s, bell ringing became a form of recreation in England and teams of ringers participated in competitions. Estimates put the number of bell ringers worldwide at 40,000.

Associate Professor Yeo Kang Shua of the Singapore University of Technology and Design was involved in the bell and belfry restoration project. He believes the refreshed peal will deepen public appreciation of the historic church.

"We now have an added aural dimension for the public to better appreciate St Andrew's Cathedral."

The public can look forward to catching more majestic peals from the cathedral on Christmas Eve.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 15, 2019, with the headline 'Bell ringers bring fresh ap(peal) to St Andrew's'. Print Edition | Subscribe