With his fists clenched and his wrists light, Austin Ferguson’s hands quickly move across the wooden baton and bangs them to effortlessly create the ringing bells that sound across campus. Simultaneously, his feet play the notes his fists couldn’t reach, creating melodic music in the practice room.
“If you’ve played any other keyboard instrument, it goes against anything you’ve ever been taught,” said Ferguson, a music studies freshman. “But once you master the basics, it becomes a good anger management process and gives you the opportunity to play as loud as you can.”
The carillon is an instrument housed in the UT Tower played by striking the wooden batons with a closed fist and by pressing the keys of a pedal keyboard with the feet. The keys mechanically activate levers and wires that connect to metal clappers that strike the bells, allowing the carillonneur to vary the intensity of the note according to the force applied to the key.
“To me, there’s not a lot that can be grasped theoretically. You just have to do it,” said Amanda Jensen, a music studies, Plan II and Greek senior. “I just love the history behind it. It’s been around for so long in more or less the same form. It’s the musicality behind the carillonneurs that changes.”
Jensen, Peter Tissot and Matthew Stites created the Guild of Student Carillonneurs in April 2010 after taking lessons on the carillon from their teacher’s assistant and realizing it was their duty to carry on the musical legacy of Tom Anderson. Anderson, a carillonneur who plays at the UT Tower three days a week, started in 1952 and has continued for more than 50 years. Each year, the group holds auditions and takes a couple of new students, and after gaining exclusive membership to the guild (currently eight members), the old members teach the new how to play the instrument. This year the guild plays at the Tower every Tuesday at 5 p.m. and also performs statewide.
“We wanted to create a sustainable group that would last for years,” Jensen said. “It just keeps things in perspective. We have to keep alive a tradition for these other students.”
The carillon at UT is the largest in the state with 56 bells, giving the guild members the opportunity to play a wider range of songs, particularly ones in a higher register. However, each carillon is different, forcing the guild members to adjust when playing a different carillon, particularly when it comes to the length of ringing time for each note.
“Even if a piece is supposed to be fast, you have to be selective that each note doesn’t end up sounding like one continuous stream of notes,” Ferguson said. “It takes a lot of getting used to. You could have played a note like five minutes ago and you can still hear it ring.”
Timing is essential when it comes to carillon music. The guild members work to constantly think a couple of notes ahead and always have their fists on notes before they need to be played to ensure there isn’t any additional ringing after each note is played and control the volume of each bell.
“I can’t just strike a note, and it’ll just play properly. There’s a lot of technique involved,” Ferguson said. “Your fist must be loose, and you have to prime each note before you hit it. It’s very unorthodox for beginners.”
In addition to the unconventional technique required, the guild members embrace the unique opportunity to be able to perform atop the Tower. Because they cannot be seen, they focus less on how many people may be watching and instead put more emphasis into how loud and how far away they can be heard.
“It’s the least stressful performance environment,” Ferguson said. “We’re up there in a room as small as a closet, and no one is watching us. We can mess up, and no one would know — it gives us something to laugh about afterwards.”
Although the guild keeps a lighthearted attitude about the carillon, they’re very serious when it comes to practicing their pieces. Ferguson practices about two hours each day, and Jensen also stresses the importance of putting time into enhancing individual musicality.
“We tell them to put in however much time they need to not make a fool of themselves at the top of the Tower,” Jensen said. “We need to keep in mind everyone can hear us when we play.”
Almost any song can be played on the carillon, from classical music, pop hits or requests from loyal listeners, and the guild members try to ensure diversity and hope to keep the tradition of playing the carillon on top of the Tower around forever.
“When you hear a song, it’s a person playing, not a machine. It’s not something randomly put at the top of the Tower,” Jensen said. “It’s the musical sound of the entire university.”
Printed on October 10, 2011: Guild of Student Carillonneurs attempts to keep tradition alive on top of UT tower