One fall day, as Ashley Tallevi ’09 was walking across Old Campus before lunch, she heard bells chime overhead and swore she recognized a riff of the “Pink Panther” theme. Later that day, Tallevi said she heard the bells of the Yale Memorial Carillon playing The Beatles’ fast-paced “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” followed by the classic “Star-Spangled Banner.”
“The music creates kind of a whimsical feeling on campus,” Tallevi said.
Every day at 12:30 p.m. and 5 p.m., two student members of the Yale Guild of Carillonneurs ascend the more than 200 steps of Harkness Tower. The only completely student-run and student-taught group in the nation, the guild plays various musical pieces from an extensive repertoire, which range from 18th century baroque music to modern pieces by artists such as Coldplay. Most guild members are undergraduates, though a few graduate students also play.
Guild co-chair Christina Meyer ’06 said students are often surprised to learn that the bell-ringers are Yalies.
“It’s not an automated computer system up there playing music,” Meyer said. “We don’t pull ropes or hit the bells with sticks as many people think.”
Carillonneurs play the bells individually from a console that resembles a simple organ. They pound their fists and feet on batons that pull on hammers to ring the 54 bells of the carillon, which stretches across four and a half octaves. The carillon bells vary in size, with some of the lightest bells weighing only 20 pounds and the heaviest weighing several tons.
The guild is currently focused on teaching and training potential carillonneurs, Meyer said. Every fall, freshmen, sophomores and first year graduate students participate in a nine-week training session followed by a mid-November audition, a process carillonneurs refer to as the “Heel.”
Jason Lee ’08, who is sometimes known as the “Heeler monster,” organizes the heel and the hopeful “Heelers.” Lee said musical experience is common among carillonneurs, but it is not a requirement.
“You don’t really need musical talent to participate, but the heelers are usually pianists, cellists, organists, or people with some musical background,” Lee said.
Lee said there are usually 50 heelers at the beginning of the year, but many students drop out when they realize how much of a time commitment the job requires.
“Because we set such a high bar for proficiency and artistry on the instrument, many heelers realize they simply don’t have enough time to practice as much as they need to in order to play well,” Meyer said.
Wen Fan ’08, who said she heeled for the Guild last year out of curiosity about the carillon, ultimately decided not to audition for membership.
“In classic freshman eagerness, I had signed up for more than I could handle, and so I decided to drop out,” she said.
In addition to regular practices, carillonneurs must commit to a half hour time slot every week.
The guild usually accepts four to seven new carillonneurs out of about 25 remaining heelers each year, Lee said. The guild bases its selection on the heelers’ skill after the training and overall dedication to the carillon.
Heeler David Alexander ’08, who has played the piano for 11 years, said he was attracted to the Guild because of its uniqueness.
“Being a carillonneur means that you get the opportunity to try something that only a few people know how to do,” he said. “You’re only at Yale for a short time, and you won’t find this opportunity anywhere else.”
Alexander said one of the greatest perks of being a carillonneur is the chance to regularly enjoy the view from atop Harkness Tower.
“I remember the first time I was up in a high balcony and I saw Branford courtyard and the rest of the Yale campus,” he said. “It’s probably the best view in all of New Haven.”
Meyer said the guild spends most of its annual $44,000 endowment on tours during breaks in the academic year, when the group travels to visit and play other carillons. Last spring break, the guild visited famous carillons across Europe.
The guild’s first stop was Spain, where the carillonneurs played the carillon in Barcelona and learned about Spanish bell-ringing in Valencia. After Spain, the guild spent two days in the Netherlands, staying in Rotterdam and visiting the National Carillon Museum.
They then continued on to the Royal Carillon School Jef Denyn in Mechelen, Belgium. The guild has a long history with the school, as Jef Denyn sponsored an exchange program allowing Yale carillonneurs to study ringing in Belgium when the guild began. The program has not been running for the past few years, but Meyer said the guild has taken steps to reinstate it. One such step is inviting Jef Denyn students to the Guild of Carillonneurs of North America Congress the Yale Guild is hosting in June 2006.
Meyer said carillonneurs put a large amount of dedication into exhibiting their musical talents.
“Everyone tries hard to be expressive and play beautiful music,” Meyer said. “People should stop for a moment and listen.”