There is a team on campus you don’t know, but with whom you are incredibly familiar. You have never seen them. But you have heard them every day. You know they exist. But you might not think about them. Their field is raised in the air. They play with neither cleats nor bats nor balls.
Their game is bells.
At the top of Harkness Tower, the Yale University Guild of Carillonneurs form Yale’s signature team.
All 54 bells of Yale’s Grand Carillon weigh a combined 43 tons, the largest of which spans eight feet and weighs 13,440 pounds itself. To play this cousin of the piano and organ, the Carillonneur ascends the tight spiral stairs of Harkness that belies the girth of the structure. She strikes the oak levers called “batons,” the collection of which stretches six and-a-half-feet across. The player uses both her hands and feet as two levels of levers exist across this wide instrument. Shuffling from side to side to reach the furthest notes, moving her hands and feet in synchrony, the player pushes down lightly on some and heavily on other batons depending on the size of the bell to which each is attached. To see someone play is to gain a profoundly different understanding of the dexterity and complexity of the music produced.
The sound of the Carillon fills our Yale lives. But we do not often think about who is gracing our atmosphere with its melody. Earning the right to play in the Guild is no easy feat, and those who play work hard to hone their craft. They do this together, as a team.
There is a weeks-long “heeling” process during which each new prospective member is assigned a student teacher from the ranks of the Guild. For more than a month of rigorous training, this team grooms these rookies, working together to continue to provide Yale with the signature sound emanating from its signature building.
“It requires a village to build you up as a guild member,” says Co-Chair of the Guild, Joy Chiu ’19. “The whole group is involved in choosing who is inducted.”
“It is also the atmosphere. It is fun to have partners around you,” adds fellow Co-Chair, Milo Brandt ’19. “When things go wrong, people are like ‘it’s okay.’ Everybody who does heel gets feedback from everybody who is involved. We let the heelers play the bells, and they get feedback from whoever is there.”
At the end of heeling, there is an audition to earn one’s spot in the Guild. Most who begin the process played the piano, or another instrument, or at least were familiar with reading music, prior to coming to Yale. Therefore, the team is entirely full of walk-ons. But every once in a while, someone “asks to learn although they have no interest in auditioning, and just wants to learn to read bass and treble clef and try the instrument,” says Chiu. “And I have taken in some students and taught them anyway.” We might call these participants a practice squad.
“Weekly recitals are typically performed in groups of two or three; the Guild has a cultural norm that encourages real-time constructive feedback on performances; and, members often circulate recordings of their playing to garner feedback,” says Michael Solotke ’13, MED ’21, SOM ’21, who was a member of the Guild from 2010–2013 and returned as a graduate affiliate in 2016. “When I was an undergraduate, it was not uncommon for Guild members to ask for other members to join them at the Carillon during their weekly performances to provide feedback. We also often play duets, which cultivates teamwork and builds a sense of connection.”
Additionally, the current members have their own Faculty Advisory, or coach, if you will. This year, “coach” Kathryn Alexander, from the Yale Department of Music, leads the team.
And the team does not just have home games. They also play on the road together. At other Carillons across the country, the Guild plays away games, where they learn from other coaches and play on other fields across the nation and even in Europe.
The Guild, partially from these road trips, but also from their passion for the bells of Yale, feels like more than just another extracurricular group.
“We have weekly group/team dinners,” Chiu proudly proclaims. “We meet to play board games in Dutch. It feels very social. You are there to do the work, sure. But you also gain a family…For most members, it is a pretty central part of our lives. For many members you find the best friends you have at Yale, because of shared interest, because of travelling. There is something that is shared beyond music. And people love doing it. I always think, ‘oh my god! It’s my ring time!’”
“The people that are going to put in the tons of effort to learn this strange music, there is something that bonds them,” Brandt said. “There is something strange about them. People don’t realize how hard it is, how much time it takes — even just the practicing.”
“When it is crappy weather and I play a happy piece, I always hope the people down below are a bit happier,” Brandt added.
And they often are.
“I think,” says Chiu, “because it is the ambiance of your four years at Yale, for any person on this street, it is the soundtrack of your tenure. Even if you don’t appreciate music at all, even if you don’t know what a carillon should or should not sound like, you should recognize that it is part of the routine of your day. I am going to dinner, I hear the bells. I am leaving dinner. I hear the bells. People often say, ‘I have known this sound. I just didn’t know it was you playing it.’”
For many, this team’s soundtrack colors the way they will remember Yale.
“My sense is that many (most?) Yale students have had some memorable moment related to the Carillon or Harkness Tower, whether that’s hearing a Carillon rendition of a song they particularly like, waking up from a particularly good afternoon nap to the sound of the bells, or walking around campus and suddenly seeing Harkness Tower from a new angle,” remarks Solotke. “It’s easy to take these moments for granted, but I believe they are privileges we have as Yale students that help give meaning to our experiences here.”
I couldn’t agree more and am so thankful for our team of Carilloneurs.
Contact Kevin Bendesky at firstname.lastname@example.org .