One of the Russian Orthodox Church’s most beloved traditions is the ringing of bells to signal and accompany the church services throughout the liturgical year. While this practice was banned during the Soviet times due to its spiritual quality, this tradition has made a resurgence thanks in part to the course in bell ringing offered at the Pokrovsky Diocesan Educational Center; founded by His Grace Bishop Pakhomiy and now run by Father Daniel Scherbakov. An article that details this phenomenon initially appeared on Pravoslavie.ru and has been machine translated below. We apologize in advance for any errors.
Image: Russian Bell Ringer
By Marina Shmeleva
Everyone who has climbed the bell tower remembers that special childhood joy. It takes one's breath away when you hear the measured beats of the bell ringer; the heart rejoices at the festive trilling. And one is surprised to see how the bell ringers deftly handle the bells. Everyone has his own rhythm, his own tune to ring in the bell tower.
It just takes effort.
"A bell is a special musical instrument designed to gather people together in prayer. And that's why bell ringers call it the voice of God. Bell ringing is a special kind of art," says Bishop Pakhomiy of Pokrovsk and Novouzensk.
And all art has to be learned. The Bishop himself remembered more than once how he first found himself in the bell tower of the Moscow Metochion of the Trinity Sergius Lavra. As is the norm at the monastery – bell ringing is an obedience – but there was no one to ring the bell on the major holidays.
But this first experience in this stressful situation did not discourage him from ringing the bells, the future Archpastor made every effort to become a professional bell ringer. He loved his job and even now still enjoys the opportunity to ring the bells. But for those who want to learn bell ringing today, he tries to create milder conditions in the Diocese of the Intercession. The program of the Pokrovsky Diocesan Educational Center includes a number of applied courses, among them is "The Bell Ringer."
The head of the course - the priest Daniel Scherbakov - has been in the church since he was very young, and in the bell tower since he was ten. At that time, he was already an acolyte and climbed the bell tower with the elders and that is how he learned. And now he is in his sixth year of teaching bell ringing to a lot of very different people who have one thing in common - a great desire to learn this ancient art.
Everyone is accepted to the course; men and women, children and adults.
"It is better to have students no younger than 10-12 years old. Although we had an example, when, together with his older brother, a six-year-old boy went up to the bell tower. He even learned to ring on the small bells. Of course, it's a little too early for him to ring in the cathedral bell tower. But such early teaching has its advantages - the younger the child is, the easier it is for them to memorize the tune, and the easier for them to learn the necessary skills. It is much easier to teach those who are between 10 to 20 years old, as the coordination and flexibility of hands is better" - explains the priest.
And if you want to learn bell ringing, but do not feel confident – because you do not have an ear for music, or you do not go to music school? Father Daniel answers this question simply:
"Bells are a musical instrument, but not as complex as the piano. The main thing there is the rhythm, and almost everyone has a sense of rhythm. In my practice, there was only one person who did not have it. The other main thing is the desire to learn.”
To develop a bell ringer's style
The program of the course is designed for several months of training, from October to Easter.
"Now we are giving theoretical classes and practicing practical skills in parallel. Previously, at the beginning of the year, we focused more on theory, but then we realized that we needed to consolidate in practice. That way we get more material and it's easier to get students interested. After all, to the children, in contrast to the more assiduous and attentive adults, theory is more difficult to teach, as they tend head straight to the bell tower" - says Father Daniel.
How do the residents of the neighborhood houses tolerate this constant bell ringing during off-duty hours? "We bought a training bell tower for our students so that they could practice bell ringing without disturbing the residents of the city," says Larisa Gennadyevna Kurkanina, director of the center. The bell tower is installed in the basement, so the practical bell ringing lessons do not disturb anyone.
By February, Father Daniel has already got his students a place in a line of bell ringers; they have been granted this obedience in the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Pokrovsk (Engels) in Saratov region. And, of course, they are preparing for the graduation exam. What is the assessment criterion that allows the teacher to grade these exams? - "Confidence. By the end of the year the bell ringing should be clear and rhythmic, and the bell ringer is not confused even in the presence of the committee and the audience," explains the priest.
At the exam, which most often takes place during Holy Week, each graduate presents his or her own bell ringing.
"During the year I try to share my experiences, I recommend recordings of bell ringing by famous bell ringers. And then everything depends on the diligence and talent of the student, he is looking for his own bell ringing style. No two bell ringers are the same - each has its own style, its own rhythm, although within a common tradition", - says Father Daniel.
He himself is closest to the bell ringing tradition of the Trinity-Sergius Lavra and the Novodevichy Monastery in Moscow. "But despite the fact that we are largely guided by the Lavra tradition, our Volga tradition is still a little different," and it cannot be otherwise. After all, bell ringing is a creative business; everything affects it. "At the same time, professionalism is important, which allows the bell ringing to maintain its quality, even if the bell ringer is not in the mood, or depressed about something," emphasizes the priest.
Learning to do good
It is not easy to find church staff today; it is very difficult to find a bell ringer who can be available for daily services. In our age of technical progress, the way out seems to have been found - an automatic bell control system, to put it simply - an electronic bell ringer. No human involvement is required (only for switching on and off), and it rings beautifully. What else is needed?
"Most of our churches don't have a service every day. We need to try to find someone to serve as bell ringer. Otherwise, the electronic bell ringer will displace all live bell ringers, and neither the rector nor the parishioners will have any incentive to learn," said Father Daniel.
The priest considers the correct way of getting involved in the program to be: a person interested in the art of bell ringing, should come to the rector of the church, shared his desire to ring, and the rector should then send him to train. "I have such examples, and, as a rule, these people really then benefit their church. It's better than learning for yourself just because you tried and liked it." He recalls Nikolai Maslov, this year's graduate and parishioner of the Church of the Great Martyr George the Victorious in Pokrovsk. The abbot priest John Eremenko first blessed him for his studies, and then later a bell tower was constructed in the church, and now Nikolai is ringing the bells there. This fall he enters the seminary. Peter Ulyanov also went to seminary a couple of years ago. He began as a parishioner of the Dormition Church, and now he has been ordained a deacon. Archpriest Roman Kozdrin from the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary sent his bell ringer to this course for training as well.
Of course, it is not easy for everyone to be obedient in this way in the church: some are hindered by their work schedule, and some have family problems. But it is all the more surprising when a person overcomes all obstacles and reaches this goal. It is even more surprising when schoolchildren become quite experienced bell ringers. Ivan and Ilya Tikhonovs and Kirill Prostitov are no longer just ringing the bells during the worship services. This summer they have repeatedly held excursions to the bell tower for their peers, telling them about the structure of the bell tower and demonstrating the very same bell ringing. "It's great bell ringing. He needs to learn more, but he will be a very good bell ringer," - even an adult is pleased to hear such praise from the lips of the Archbishop, and this ten-year-old boy is all the more so.
Any obedience brings a lot of benefits to the person himself, every church worker will tell you that.
"I'm getting a better understanding of the service. We've been studying it in class. The bell ringer must understand what is happening in the church, in order to rise on time, and know how long it is supposed to ring," - says Ksenia Kaplun.
She is happy to go up to the bell tower, and is willing to do it several times a day during Holy Week. "She loves church life, and strives to be useful," her teacher said of Xenia.
"She listened to recordings of bell ringing on the Internet, how the bishop rings them, how Father Daniel rings them, and then she comes up with her own rhythm to ring. We share our experiences with other bell ringers, sometimes we ring the bells along with several other people and together we come up with a common pattern of ringing the different bells," says Ksenia.
Bright Week can be called an open house at the bell tower. Both adults and children hurry to ring the bells. Bell ringers are often worried and afraid of the ropes, but they always lead excursions to the bell tower. Maybe someone will really like bell ringing and their bell ringing schedule will increase.
Vladyka Pakhomiy is sure that, "It is necessary to give everyone who wants to learn to ring such an opportunity. So that he can rejoice and take part in this celebration. Bell-ringing in Russia is a special consolation: when you hear it, then even in difficult moments there comes a spiritual uplifting. It is not for nothing that at the time of persecution they forbade bell ringing, because it literally speaks without words - bright and eloquently - a reminder of God and of the Church, and sets one up for prayer.”