How to win: Judging a 12-bell

By Tom Hinks, Chief Judge of the 2017 Contest

The text and images of this article were printed in the Ringing World on Friday 10th March 2017 — issue no. 5524, p. 220–221.
The content is reproduced here with permission from their editorial team.

Tom Hinks, Chief Judge 2017

“What do I need to do to WIN the 12-bell?”

Relaxing in The Monk’s Retreat after helping to judge the 2016 National 12-bell Contest eliminator in Reading, I had been prepared for many questions about the judging process, but had not anticipated this one.

“Errm…” I began, rather uncertainly…

Judging the National 12-bell Striking Contest is a great honour but also a significant responsibility and challenge. From organising the rest of the judging team to making decisions about the judging approach, and from providing fair and helpful feedback to teams to producing a clear result in which all participants can have confidence, the tasks and challenges are many and varied. As bands put in increasingly serious preparation for the contest, resulting in ever-more impressive performances, separating and ranking teams has become harder. The recent developments of the strikeometer (a computer programme for marking ringing) and live sound feed (judging from the sound recorded by a microphone in the bell chamber) have introduced additional complexities: should bands ‘ring to the microphone’, adjusting their ringing to ensure it sounds best on the live sound feed? Should the judges adjust their marking to take account of the differences between the sound in the ringing room and that on their sound feed? If the strikeometer can do all the marking, is there still a place for human judges at all?

Why sound feeds and strikeometers?

The traditional method of judging the 12-bell, from its first year in 1975 onwards, was for the judges to mark faults during each piece of ringing, usually noting between 0 and 3–4 faults per row depending on the seriousness of the errors in each change. Significant effort and thought would have to be given to finding a suitable location for the judges, which gave as clear a sound as possible directly from the tower. However, as anybody who has had the pleasure of sitting in a cold car with the window open and rain beating down against the roof while trying to judge a striking competition will know, hearing the changes clearly and consistently over external noise like bad weather, passing traffic or the chatter of inebriated bellringers is extremely challenging. Even from the best-chosen judging rooms, the sound the judges were hearing could be subtly altered by small factors such as changes in wind direction. The live sound feed which has been used at the contest in recent years is taken from a microphone placed carefully above the bells and gives the judges an exceptionally clear and even sound from which to judge, neatly avoiding all these problems — it is also the sound that listeners to Matthew Tosh’s excellent National 12-bell Final live broadcast will hear when tuning in online to listen to the ringing.

The strikeometer has been used at the 12-bell contest since 2011, and the contest is fortunate to have the services of an outstanding technical team, known by the catchy title of ‘strikeometerists’ and led by Dave Richards. Dave, along with Ian McCallion, whose HawkEar program is instrumental in the running of the strikeometer, will explain the origins and workings of the strikeometer in a subsequent article. In essence, HawkEar picks out the strike points of each individual bell, enabling the strikeometer to calculate a model of what excellent ringing would sound like for each piece it marks and then identify any deviation from that model by any bell. Clever stuff, but what advantages does it have over the old fault-marking method?

Deciding what constitutes a ‘fault’ is fairly straightforward even without a computer, as is marking faults to that measurement for a few pieces of ringing. The challenge with competitions such as the National 12-bell is the sheer number of pieces to be judged: ten teams at a final is not unusual, and with around fifteen minutes of ringing for each test piece, plus time spent discussing each band, the judges have to be highly focused for five hours without a break. Maintaining consistency in the judgement of what constitutes a fault between the first and last teams to ring is therefore extremely difficult, both as an individual judge and between the judges in the team. The strikeometer is absolutely consistent throughout the day and provides the judges with clear data to help inform their decisions. It remains, however, just one tool available to the judges, and there is always going to be a place for human judges in judging a human performance.

Choosing a judging team
Choosing a judging team is another challenge for the Chief Judge; when inviting ringers to help me judge this year’s contest I was keen to get a balance between experienced and new judges. The judging team for 2017 is as follows:
Tom Hinks
I learnt to ring at Romsey Abbey, in Hampshire, in 2001. After some early forays into twelve-bell ringing at Winchester and Hursley, I continued while at university in Exeter and then Cambridge, ringing for their National 12-bell Contest squads in the 2009 and 2012 competitions respectively. I have judged at eliminators in 2013, 2014 and 2016, and at the finals in Oxford (2014) and Aston (2016). My current home tower is Bromley, Kent, where we began teaching new ringers last summer and recently restarted practice nights after a three-year gap. I am going to be chief judge at the eliminator at Sheffield Cathedral and will be repeating that role at the final at Southwark Cathedral in June.
Katie Town
Katie has been ringing since 1986, and currently lives and works in Wakefield. She was Master of the Ancient Society of College Youths in 2014–15; her mastership saw the Society achieve victory in both the London 12-bell Striking Contest and the National 12-bell final at Norwich. She will be chief judge for the eliminator at St Margaret’s Leicester and will then be part of the judging team at the final at Southwark.
David Dearnley
David has rung over 1000 12-bell peals and has judged National 12-bell eliminators and finals on fifteen different occasions. He will be chief judge for the St Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham, eliminator and will then be part of the judging team for the final.
Hannah Taylor
Hannah will be helping to judge the Sheffield eliminator. She learnt to ring at Towcester in 1990 and is currently Ringing Master at Southwark Cathedral; having overseen the successful rehang project she will now be preparing the band for the serious task of hosting the 12-bell final on the mighty bells of Southwark later this year.
Stephanie Pattenden
Stephanie has significant experience of judging the 12-bell, having judged at seven eliminators and three finals. She was Master of the Society of Royal Cumberland Youths and has rung in the SRCY band at fourteen 12-bell finals, winning on three occasions. She currently rings at Kensington and will be helping Katie to judge the eliminator at Leicester.
Ben Carey
Ben is a highly experienced 12-bell ringer and has very nearly rung 1000 peals. He is currently Ringing Master at Portsmouth Cathedral and will be helping David to judge the eliminator at St Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham.

The judging approach for 2017

When judging any piece of ringing, a judge has to make fairly rapid judgements on each individual row while also trying to take a view on the piece as a whole. Thinking about where that piece fits in a ranking of the bands who have rung, giving some thought to how best to provide constructive feedback on the piece and marking each row as the piece happens can make judging a rather intense experience! When listening to a piece of 12-bell ringing, a range of considerations are going through my mind (many sub-consciously!). On a micro-level of each individual change, these would include: what would a perfect row sound like in this piece — and how does this row compare? Are there any gaps or clips within the change? Where are they? How good is the leading? Are the bells at the back stretching out the change? On the level of the piece as a whole I would be thinking about: How consistent is the rhythm set by the back bells? Which bells are being rung particularly well? Is the speed consistent? Is the band as a whole taking the same approach to the piece? How successfully are they tackling the method? It’s a complex business — one reason why thorough preparation for judging the 12-bell is essential.

As reported here on 24th February (p.172), the complete judging team for the 2017 contest met in Birmingham in January to discuss our judging approach and to test it out under ‘contest conditions’. The approach we are going to take is outlined below:

  1. During each test piece, each judge will be annotating a marksheet of the test piece (six leads of Cambridge Surprise Maximus) with notes on the ringing. This is a very active form of listening and includes notes on: problems with the ringing such as quick or slow leading; stretching out of the change, clips and bad blows; noting down common problems; and marking clean changes and particularly good features of the piece. These detailed notes will provide each judging team with their first source of data for judging the ringing, as well as helping enormously when crafting comments to deliver on each piece of ringing during the results.
  2. After the completion of each test piece, the judges will then have about fifteen minutes before the next band begin their test piece. The first thing we will do is discuss the piece of ringing, comparing notes and considering strengths and weaknesses of the piece. We will consider the ranking of bands and a suggested judges’ score for the team. Scores at the National 12-bell are now presented as a percentage, where 100% would represent a faultless piece of ringing — a common score for winning pieces at eliminators is between 85–90%.
  3. During that initial discussion, our strikeometerist will be running the strikeometer programme. When ready, the judges will look at the output and compare the data to our notes on the ringing, looking in detail at the various outputs available from the strikeometer to help develop our view of the piece and of the overall ranking of bands.
  4. After all teams have rung, the judges will confirm the ranking of teams and their percentage scores, reviewing recordings of test pieces if necessary as part of this process. One challenge at eliminators is the separation of bands in third and fourth place, as this is the difference between qualifying for the final and not doing so.
  5. Aside from the challenge of getting the right result, judges also need to present helpful and constructive comments prior to giving the results of the eliminator or final. All the judges this year are skilled at crafting insightful, fair and helpful comments which should help bands to progress. We will then present the all-important results with a ranking of bands and the judges’ percentage score for each band.
  6. After the eliminators, each band will receive their strikeometer data along with guidance on how best to use that information to help them prepare for the final or next year’s eliminators.

And what would I say to that nameless competitor who asked me how to win the contest last year? There is no set formula for qualifying, nor any one route to victory in the contest, and as such we felt it would be wrong for the judges to provide a detailed list of criteria against which teams will be judged. We won’t base our judgements on the speed at which teams choose to ring, though of course that may affect how well the piece is executed, and won’t use any personal preferences for a particular style of ringing while coming to judgements. What the judges will be looking for is a consistent approach, a good overall rhythm and cleanly-struck changes. “Produce better ringing than the other teams” is perhaps the best advice I can give! I would like to wish all bands the best of luck for their eliminators, and encourage anybody wondering whether or not to go along to an eliminator or the final to do so — you are sure to hear some excellent ringing while enjoying great company.