The tower is musty and bare, with the patriotic-colored ropes that are a striking contrast to the somber cement walls. A stone staircase encircles the rim of the room, ascending upwards towards the lofty ceiling. Dr. John Finke, mathematics professor, faces the first-year students, each one taking turns expertly pulling the woven ropes, turning their physical energy into melodious harmonies.
“Don’t touch the ropes!” says Ringing Master Margaret Miller to a curious bystander in the bell tower.
Miller is a member of the Kalamazoo College Guild of Change Ringers, which is composed of students, faculty, alumni, and local residents who practice English change ringing with the eight bells in Stetson chapel. Change ringing is a unique type of ringing, requiring communication and concentration amongst the ringers to produce a dynamic melody of constantly changing bell sequences.
Miller and Finke are part of the task force created last spring to encourage student involvement in change ringing.
The program began in the early 80’s when Jeff Smith, a mathematics professor, pioneered a first-year seminar on English change ringing using only hand bells. The tower bells were installed in 1984 as a 105th birthday present to K College, and they are the only English change ringing bells in Michigan.
“I had no idea it was such a complex process,” said Elyse Tuennerman K’18, a student in the newly created bell ringing class at K. The program admits four students and counts for 0.2 hours of gym credit, due to the physical nature of the exercise.
“You can imagine how much skill and coordination is involved in controlling the physical aspects of the instrument,” said Finke, designer of the change ringing program. “When you’re playing a clarinet it’s maybe a pound at most. This is 500 pounds.”
The class is a mental challenge as well as an aerobic exercise, according to Finke. Change ringing uses group theory mathematics, allowing for hundreds of different combinations of bell sequences to produce a different melody with each change of ringing order.
“I’m looking forward to a time where we can once again say, ‘you get to ring for the chapel!’” said Finke.
The tower is open to all K students interested in bell ringing, with no prior experience necessary. Weekly practices are held Monday and Wednesday nights from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. in the Stetson chapel.