I live in Branford — the most beautiful residential college. Also the loudest residential college, not because of our raucous parties, but because of Harkness Tower. We hear Harkness’ chimes every day — the perfect alarm clock after a late-afternoon nap — but we don’t really put faces or names to the sweet melodies. I had a chance to meet the students behind the bells recently: I ventured up the narrow winding staircase and chatted with five members of the Yale University Guild of Carillonneurs — Paige Breen ’16, Thomas Gurin ’18, Andy Zhang ’16, Megan Brink ’17 and Jonathan Shao ‘17. With the largest dynamic range of any musical instrument, the carillon can be heard from miles away. It’s also the biggest and heaviest instrument on the planet. Yale’s Carrilon is only moderately sized at 43 tons! (Pro tip: If you become friends with a Yale Carillonneur, or just go on a tour, they might let you play “Hot Cross Buns” to wake your friends from their late afternoon naps.)
Q: Some people at Yale perceive the Carillonneurs to be a secret cult or a secret society. Do you think you are secretive? How do people react when they find out you are Carillonneurs?
Paige Breen: They sometimes say “Oh I didn’t even realize people played the bells in Harkness Tower.”
Jonathan Shao: One of the members didn’t even find out about the bells until his sophomore year. People think the bells are automated or played by a machine.
Andy Zhang: Even people who do know think “Oh, I don’t know what goes on up there in that tower.” But we do have tower tours whenever people request them. We try to be very open on campus given that the Carillon is a very public instrument.
Megan Brink: We are trying to get people to know more about the Carillon tours — we had senior class gifts and people entered a raffle to win a tour. But they are actually free and you can take them anytime! [laughs] So, yeah we are trying to get more people to know about the tours.
Q: What drew each of you to the bells? Why did you want to become Carollinneurs?
PB: It’s something pretty unique to Yale. Not many universities have carillons and when they do, they don’t have a student-run group like ours.
Tom Gurin: It’s kind of hard not to be aware [of the Carillon] when there is a huge sound coming from the middle of campus … it’s pretty obvious. So, I was keeping my eye out a for an info session.
AZ: I thought it was a unique opportunity to play a new kind of musical instrument that not a lot of people can play. No other carillon is run by students in the whole world. It is a unique instrument and a unique community.
MB: It’s independent — you don’t have to rely on an orchestra— but it’s also a group community. You can hang out with other people; you can even play duets. You have to know how to read music but there are no other requirements.
JS: Zero percent of the Carillonneurs had bell experience before [playing here].
Q: How does it make you feel when people petition each year to stop the bells?
AZ: When you look at the results from that petition, most of the responses were overwhelmingly positive [in favor of the Carillon]. So, people can submit these things but when the actual results come out you see people like [the bells].
PB: My first thought is — I wish they would come and take a tour! I feel that if they knew more about it and how the instrument works and saw how much time we spend learning the pieces they would have a different point of view.
MB: I think it’s funny how they try to spell “Carillonneurs.”
[aside about pronunciation of “Carillonneurs” ensues]
Q: Do you have any crazy Carillon stories — any wedding proposals take place in the tower?
PB: There was this one couple who rented the top of the tower —
AZ: No, they didn’t, they didn’t go to the top of the tower. They actually came up to the tower [afterwards]. First, they met in this room in WLH — it was this whole saga — and he filled that room with roses. Like, a lot of roses. It was WLH 119, which is a big room. Then, they came here and we played a bunch of pieces that they requested.
Q: And she said yes?
AZ: I think so …
PB: I hope so!
AZ: I think they said yes earlier [in WLH 119] and then came to the tower. This was their celebratory round.
Q: Have there been any funny Carillon stories?
MB: One time I had a tour with these two [older] women. I told them how the carillon is like a piano: you can play notes. I turned around and one of the women started playing “Hot Cross Buns” on the real Carrolin. And I was like no, you can’t touch the Carrolon. You have to go through 9 weeks first.
Q: Could you describe the audition process? Is it really rigorous?
JS: So, my position this year was the heel-a-monster, which is basically a rush manager. We had a ton of sign-ups during the bazaar: 186 [names], a little bit more than 15 percent of the freshmen class. We call it the heel process. It’s a 10-week process during which the heelers — the students who want to join the guild — take lessons from current members and, on the 10th week, they audition. Then, we decide who [will be new members]. We ended up with six this year. Not all 186 auditioned.
AZ: It’s really intensive. You have to practice a lot and near the end, if you’re dedicated, it takes up a lot of time. So, a lot of people drop before the audition.
MB: We had 22 who actually made it to the audition day.
JS: Each teacher has four or five students and once the heelers make the guild, we call them our children.
PB: Tommy is my son.
AZ: We have a family tree on one of those family tree websites. It goes back a long way.
PB: I just met my great-great-great-great-great grandmother from the 1990s. She was class of ’94.
AZ: We use a real family tree website.
TG: [The website moderators] are probably wondering, “How do these people keep having kids by themselves?”
AZ: [The new members] are not children until they get in — we try to keep the relationships more formal in the beginning. But then, once they’re in the Guild, it becomes more like family. The Guild is a group that does more than just play music.
TG: Definitely. Being a freshman in the guild, it was really interesting to go from a professional relationship to becoming really close friends with all of the people.
MB: We had karaoke night on Saturday in the tower.
Q: What do you do together?
PB: We go on tour. This Friday we’re leaving for our Eurotour. We’re going to the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark. We’ll get to meet a lot of official carollinneurs there and take lessons.
Q: Do you get many song requests?
PB: Sometimes, it comes in spurts. On average, we get a couple a week.
TG: I think that when it comes in spurts that might be my suitemate [making requests] …
Q: What have been some of the strangest requests?
AZ: I’ve played a bunch of Miley Cyrus.
JS: Sometimes people even send in their own compositions.
AZ: Someone wrote a song with really weird lyrics.
Q: It’s not like you would have been able to play the lyrics.
AZ: But [we couldn’t play it because of] what the song was about.
MB: Some people have requested “Boyz-N-The-Hood!”
AZ: Some things [sound really good] on carillon, and some things, like “Uptown Funk,” just do not. When Macklemore came for Spring Fling everyone was like, “Play Macklemore!” That was decent but “Thrift Shop” is kind of hard to play on the carillon.
MB: There have been some really cute requests. Once, one girl got homesick and so her dad requested we play “My Old Kentucky Home.” Sometimes people ask if we can play things for their boyfriends.
Q: Do you feel like you have a special power over campus? That you can set the tone for the day?
AZ: Some [of the Carillonneurs] think about that more. I always feel really self-conscious if I play dark pieces at noon. I just don’t want the music to be jarring. If the weather is nice, you can’t play something dark and stormy. Don’t play something horribly sad on a Sunday afternoon.
JS: Because of midterm season, I recently got a request to play “Bad Day.”
AZ: I think it’s so funny to be really relevant.
PB: We were playing some break-up songs after Valentine’s Day. Some people noticed.
TG: On Valentine’s Day, I played the “Friends” theme song because it’s not just romantic [it’s also about friendship]. Then I played “On My Own” because that was the reality of my Valentine’s Day.
Q: What is the Carillon’s history?
AZ: In 1921, the first bells were brought in with the original Harkness Tower. I think they brought 10 bells in from England with funding from Anna Harkness, in memory of her son. The Carillon used to be called the Harkness Memorial Carillon. In 1966, Florence S. Marcy Crofut commissioned another 44 bells — we have a total of 54, now called the Yale Memorial Carillon. 1966 was the beginning of the Guild as it is today. Before, when they had 10 bells, it was the Yale Guild of Bell Ringers. They rang at 7:30 every morning.
MB: Funny fact, when the bells were first installed, the hammers were too far away [and hit the bells with more force]. The first time they played the bells, all the glass in Branford shattered.
AZ: People reported hearing it four miles away. They adjusted accordingly. Today, people can usually hear it from three-quarters of a mile away. If the wind is just right, you can hear it all the way from KBT.
Q: Have you always played in Harkness?
AZ: In 2009, they did a renovation and so they brought in a mobile carillon on a truck and parked it up by the Whale. People couldn’t really hear it in the center of campus.
MB: People did miss the real Carillon.
AZ: Afterwards, the people on Science Hill said, “You should build another carillon up here so we can hear it.” I would love another carrilon.
PB: More carillon is always great.
Q: Do you have 24-hour access to Harkness?
JS: Yeah, it’s a nice hangout space. We have these two empty levels … and we’re thinking of maybe building an exhibit there — like a museum of Guild history.
MB: It’s the 50th anniversary next summer. The exhibit will be part of that.
AZ: 1966 to 2016. The Guild of Carillonneurs [in North America] is this big organization and every year they have an annual meeting. And that meeting will be here [in June 2016]! The whole carillon community of the world will be here too.
Q: Are there any final thoughts you want to share?
AZ: Come on our tour! And we have a website.
PB: We have also started tweeting.
Q: Can I tweet at you requests?
AZ: I suppose that could be done. You would be the first person to do it. We also have a live-stream of the music.
MB: We are getting really tech-y.
Q: Do you get a warm feeling in your heart every time you hear the bells?
AZ: If you shared an instrument with only 20 other people in your community and you knew them all so well, [you would too]. It’s nice that I get to share this with them.