Most of us have heard the bells ringing from the tower of South College on weekday afternoons, playing anything from a hymn to a show tune. While the sounds of the bells may ring throughout the campus, the identities of these ringers are kept quiet. All University students, the bell ringers make up the “semi-secret society” of Bell and Scroll.
“Secret society” conjures up images of hooded figures, dungeons, and the clandestine process of being tapped, all a bit dramatic for Bell and Scroll. After all, they can be easily reached through their Twitter account(@BellandScroll) and e-mail (email@example.com). They are even open to taking requests via Yik Yak.
The Argus sat down to talk with two members of Bell and Scroll, called Ringer and Dinger for the purposes of this article, as well as the group’s founder, a former faculty member and ringer himself who asked to be called the Scroll Master.
When asked about the role of anonymity in the society, Ringer explained that it is primarily an individual choice.
“In recent years we have adopted the policy that you can tell people you’re in Bell and Scroll, but you’re not really supposed to give people the complete list of who else is in it,” he said.
The Scroll Master added his own requirement.
“And not boast of your exploits,” he said. “Whatever they may be.”
Both Ringer and Dinger opt to keep their involvement known to their inner circle of friends.
“For me, it’s not the biggest deal, especially if I want feedback,” Ringer explained. “Also, there’s a window [in the bell tower] so if I see a friend I can yell down to them, ‘Name a song!’”
While telling friends has its perks, remaining anonymous frees the ringers up to experiment without fear of embarrassment and lessens the nerves of playing for such a large audience. However, when it comes to ringing the bells at big events such as graduation, Ringer explained that nerves are sometimes unavoidable.
“I rang for commencement last year,” he said. “That’s when I was most nervous, because it’s a big audience, and it’s an official time. I feel like it would reflect on Wesleyan if the bells were terrible, and I like Wesleyan, so I wouldn’t want to mess that up. [During] the day-to-day ringing I don’t get nervous at all, just because you’re so anonymous.”
So how does one join the society? There is no one direct route.
“I knew someone, and they were going abroad,” Ringer said. “They needed someone to fill their spot and I had expressed interest when we’d talked about the bells before offhandedly. They told me, ‘Oh I’m going abroad. You can take my spot.’”
Dinger, on the other hand, actively sought out the group, after taking an interest in the bells her freshman year.
“I was always walking by the bell tower when they were playing and I immediately thought, ‘O.K., I have to do this; it’s such a cool thing,’” she said. “It’s just a fun way to bring music to yourself and to others. I took it upon myself to do some research to find out how to contact the society. I reached out through e-mail, after that I became an apprentice.”
An apprentice is a name for a person in the beginning period before becoming a full-fledged bell ringer.
“Basically, what that means is when you start off you have someone showing you the ropes,” she explained. ”So you are typically under the tutelage of someone who’s more experienced.”
This apprentice period goes on until apprentices feels that they are ready, even if that means they know only three or four songs.
“Let me just say we are a welcoming group,” the Scroll Master said. “I don’t think we’ve ever thrown anybody out for bad playing.”
Part of this may have something to do with the fact that most members of Bell and Scroll have had some past musical experience. Both Ringer and Dinger play piano, and while their experience helped them adjust to the bells, the skills didn’t crossover right away.
“The major difference is just feeling the weight, and knowing that every key translates to this big physical action of hitting a bell,” Ringer explained. “If it’s a low note, it’s a bigger bell, which means you have to hit it a little harder. If it’s a high bell you don’t.”
The Scroll Master said that truly mastering the art of the bell requires a huge amount of work.
“To be a really good bell ringer, you’d need years of lessons actually and to pass tests,” he said. “We’re not quite at that level yet.”
Despite the distinction at this early stage of bell ringing, there is no official hierarchy in the group.
“There’s not much power structure to it,” Ringer said. “It’s mostly just natural leadership. Some people who are in more leadership roles who have knowledge of how to access things like financial accounts pass that down, and whoever wants to steps up and does it. There’s not, like, the president or the vice president.”
Currently, Bell and Scroll consists of fewer than 10 people, which means there are still several spots open in the group to be filled. Both Ringer and Dinger seemed to agree that the best part of being a bell ringer is hearing people’s reactions to the songs each day.
“It’s a really rewarding moment when you hear someone say, ‘I love that song,’ and you realize that was you,” Ringer said.