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Real People Ring Yale’s Carillon Bells

Every time the carillon atop Yale University's 70-meter tall Harkness Tower sounds the quarter hour, its notes are the work of Yale college students pounding their fists on the instrument's batons -- wooden rods, arrayed before them like piano keys, that are linked to the bell hammers.

Many people recognize the sound of carillons, the tuned bells, often mounted in stately towers, whose distinctive chimes mark the hour or ring out with patriotic melodies, religious hymns or college songs. Often today, the chimes come from recordings because not many people know how to play carillons anymore. But Yale, in New Haven, Connecticut, has a small group of students who keep the bells ringing.

The school's carillon players learn to perform a variety of tunes, which they practice -- not on the real carillon -- but in a special room located just below the big bells. Yale seniors Emily Johnson and Tiffany Ng lead the way up a narrow, spiral staircase to the space that holds the practice carillon. Its hand batons and pedals are identical to the real model, but its hammers connect to xylophone-like metal plates instead of bells.

"Everyone has their own technique," says Ms. Johnson. "There are some trained to 'prepare' the notes. You bring the note down and strike it at the bottom. Some people don't do that and play 'from the top.' Or you can play with 'open' hands -- play intervals and open chords with open hands. People trill sometimes with two or one hand."

During the recent Christmas season, student carilloneurs performed popular carols. The rest of the year, the repertoire ranges from classical works, to the fight songs of Yale sports teams, to variations of pop tunes like the Eagles' Hotel California.

The Yale musicians also perform occasional concerts druing the academic year. Emily Johnson says the isolation of the carillon tower lets them perform without worrying about stage fright -- or even what to wear. "It's kind of nice, especially compared to playing the piano, where -- when you give a concert -- you are right there in front of the audience. Here, you're playing and it's just you up here."

That means that formal concerts need not be so formal. "There are carilloneurs who come up in the summer," says Ms. Johnson, "and, before there was the air conditioning unit, would play without their shirts on. Because no one sees you!"

About 60 students audition for membership in the guild each year. Only about five are added to the 20-member group, which is part of an elite community of just a few hundred American carillon musicians. The scarcity explains why many institutions use recorded carillon music. "Unfortunately a lot of churches do," notes Tiffany Ng. "The church on the New Haven green has an ugly, synthesized bell sound. In general, those tend to be public menaces."

Emily Johnson recalls malfunctions in these recorded carillons. "It will be like a tape recording," she says, "and all of a sudden, the tape will stop."

Both Yale students say their interest in the carillon was sparked by accident. Tiffany Ng still recalls her first encounter with the bells. "I remember walking up those winding, spiral staircases and listening to the music filtering down the stairs," she says. "I was really enchanted. And, ever since, I've been determined to keep playing them the rest of my life."

Ms. Ng plans to pursue her interest in the carillon by studying the instrument in Belgium. But Emily Johnson says she plans on entering dental school.