The ascent up Harkness Tower was daunting. 65 steps of winding staircase had brought me within sight of a carillon, but my guide cheerfully informed me that this was just the office level. 72 more steps awaited me. Turning pale, I clung to the railing and struggled on. At the top of the second staircase, I was met with an underwhelming sight: The carillon was tiny. And there were no bells to be seen.
Several people were squeezed in the dimly lit room for the Saturday ring. While most members take half-hour shifts, playing the bells once a week at 12:30 or 5:00, Saturday evenings are dedicated to group rings. Everyone from nervous heelers to seasoned alumni was there, taking turns showcasing their latest arrangements. I stood in the back, impatiently waiting for the music to begin. A heeler stepped forward, gingerly spreading out sheets of music. The chair squeaked as he sat down. He placed his hands on the wooden knobs of the carillon, where 54 keys are connected to the 54 bells above, and began ringing.
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A heeler is a carillonneur in training. Carillons are scarce, usually limited to universities, churches, and town belfries, so few people have any prior experience. “It’s not like a cappella,” says Su Joo ’10, a co-chair of the Guild of Carillonneurs, “because most people didn’t play the carillon before they came here.” Portability is also an issue. “People who love singing can just sing in shower,” Joo says. “You can’t really lug around a carillon.”
Claire Wallace ’12 came to the carillon after playing handbells in high school. She stumbled upon the instrument in a Google search for bell-ringing societies at Yale. Although the carillon isn’t quite what she expected, she considers the heeling process a fun venture. “It’s just really cool to go up to the tower and play something that no one plays,” she says.
Wendy Hou ’12 is more serious about the auditioning process. For her, the challenging and selective nature of heeling provides motivation. “The tower is pretty much revered everywhere,” Hou says. “I am definitely going through with it.”
The competition to become a full-fledged carillonneur is serious. While about 75 people signed up for heeling this year, only five to seven people will ultimately be selected to join the Guild. Nine weeks of practice go into a single audition, which consists of a standard exercise, two prepared pieces, and a passage for sight-reading. “I just have to practice, practice, practice,” Hou says.
The Guild of Carillonneurs has existed since 1964, and, according to Andrew Lai ’09, another co-chair of the Guild, serves an important role. “We set the ambience for the campus, even though most people won’t realize it,” Lai says. “We are doing a public service by introducing the instrument.”
Though its sounds may permeate campus, the carillon remains enigmatic. While almost everyone on campus can hear the music, they can’t see who’s playing the actual instrument in the tower. Lai and Joo spend much of their time dispelling myths about the instrument and the Guild. They try to explain to their classmates that a) there are no hunchbacks in the tower, and b) the music is not played from a prerecorded machine. Wendy Hou, however, seems to like the air of mystique surrounding the carillon. “I’d rather they keep thinking we’re like Quasimodo,” she says. “We would be like gymnastic monkeys!”
After the heelers presented their pieces, Lai let me ring the hour with the Westminster Chimes. I was nervous, but he patiently pointed the keys out to me. I struck each one with my fist and the sound magnified hundreds of times around me; my impromptu performance reached the thousands of listeners 230 feet below.
As I left the tower, the bells were ringing above my head; I could feel their vibrations through the soles of my feet. Each strike of the heeler’s hands brought forth a fresh wave of rumbling, and the entire building was awake with the immensity of the sound. I stepped outside of the room and paced the length of the tower. There were doors to small balconies, where pigeons roosted as if they didn’t hear a thing. A group of heelers huddled in one corner, flipping through sheets of music and deciding what to play next. They eyed me curiously as I plugged my ears and looked up at the ringing bells. “First time,” I explained.