When Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” rang out from Harkness Tower on Saturday evening — a special request for a wedding proposal — it marked the last time Yale’s signature carillon bells are supposed to ring for months.
The tower closed officially on Sunday following a Nov. 13 email from Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun, who announced stricter on-campus COVID-19 measures, including restrictions on student gatherings, in the week preceding Thanksgiving break. For the Guild of Carillonneurs, the student group whose members climb up 284 winding steps to play the carillon twice daily, the tower’s abrupt closure is just one of the semester’s unusual turns.
“Rings themselves used to be a social experience,” Jeremy Weiss ’22 said, explaining that multiple students used to be able to share performance time in the tower’s carillon cabin. “Now, it’s just you and the carillon.”
The tower also closed for the remainder of the spring term after students left campus last March, but prior to Sunday, the Guild had been practicing and playing this semester under a strict set of pandemic protocols.
Rings — time slots when Guild members play the bells — take place from 12:30 to 1 p.m. every afternoon and again from 5:30 to 6:15 p.m. in the evening. They are usually taken on rotating shifts by pairs or small groups of carillon players. During the pandemic, though, only one Guild member plays in the tower at a time, and carillonneurs have to leave an hourlong gap between players’ practice slots.
While the Guild’s co-chairs, Michael Gancz ’22 and Annie Gao ’21, anticipate that the tower will remain closed until at least the start of the spring semester, they are still trying to see if local students can be granted exceptions during the break.
Of the 19 current members of the Guild — a mix of undergraduates, graduate students and alumni who live in the area — only seven have been playing the carillon on campus this semester.
“The rest of us are stuck at home or in New Haven without tower access, only able to poke at the piano in simulation of the bells, attempt to arrange carillon music without a carillon, or compose,” Gancz and Gao wrote to the News in a joint email.
This means that, on average, each carillonneur is playing the bells for more than an hour each week, alone, which is more than double their typical time — an experience that Nathan Wu ’21 said has “improved his playing ability a lot.”
Usually, the group recruits first years and sophomores every fall to join the Guild. They take five weeks’ worth of lessons with current Guild members before an audition process on both the practice instruments and the actual bells. But the Guild voted to postpone the annual “heeling” process — so named for the way a carillon’s wooden batons are struck by the heels of a player’s hands — until next year. As a result, the group currently has no first-year members.
According to Gancz and Gao, the Guild will also be opening up their recruitment to juniors next fall to compensate for this year’s lack of recruitment.
The carillon’s first 10 bells were cast a century ago, in 1921, and the other 44 were cast in 1964. The instrument itself is wired like an organ — with wooden keys called batons — except that playing the keys of a carillon will cause a clapper to strike 43 tons worth of bronze bells, chiming to passersby below.
“It feels like something you’ll see in a museum, but it’s a functional instrument we can play daily,” Wu said.
Guests can usually request tours of Harkness Tower — whose view opens into the city, with East Rock in the distance — but tours are also canceled until further notice.
Their advisor, Ellen Dickinson ’97 MUS ’99, who is herself an alumna of the Guild, runs group lessons, but it is largely up to members to practice on their own and select musical arrangements. The group’s repertoire ranges widely, from classical arrangements to popular music, and they also take personal requests — but playing “Happy Birthday” is expressly prohibited.
Wu, who performed “Sweet Caroline” on Saturday, said, “at least my playing wasn’t that bad. They got engaged.”
The Guild of Carillonneurs was founded in 1949.
Emily Tian | firstname.lastname@example.org