Finding Inspiration During the Pandemic

Joey Brink

Photo by Erielle Bakuum
A version of this article was originally published on the UChicago Arts blog.

For students, faculty and staff on the University of Chicago campus last year, the absence of the carillon bells was noticeable. When the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, Rockefeller Chapel closed along with the rest of the University—silencing the signature sounds of its 100-ton instrument.

But now, the familiar ring of the bells has returned, often in the form of hits as The Lord of the Rings theme song, one of the most requested carillon songs. Adopting a number of new protocols to ensure their health and safety, carillonneurs have resumed their twice-daily schedule—playing the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon at noon and 5 p.m., six days per week.

University Carillonneur Joey Brink spoke with UChicago Arts about his monthslong absence from Rockefeller Chapel, how COVID-19 changed the way he and students practice, and what it means for him to return to his beloved instrument.

How has your daily routine with the carillon changed since the onset of COVID-19?

The carillon was silent for three months from March 15 to June 15, as the University shut down through the stay-at-home order. In those three months, my students and I were unable to play or practice the instrument at all—carillons are too big to take home! We opted instead for weekly virtual get-togethers, workshops and classes. I would prepare a short class on a particular carillon topic—composing, arranging, a historical snapshot, diversity and inclusion in the carillon community, practicing tips, etc. I spent more of my time in these months composing and making arrangements, including several arrangements of Frozen songs, being unable to get these out of my head as I quarantined with our 2-year-old daughter!

What was it like returning the Rockefeller Chapel and the carillon? 

Returning to the instrument on June 15 was a breath of fresh air. For me, it was empowering, uplifting and deeply gratifying. I began playing on June 15, Monday through Friday, every day from noon to 1 p.m. Normally I would have had several students, and many guest performers playing throughout the summer as well, but in these next three months, I was the only individual allowed back in the tower, as the policy for returning students to the instrument was still being worked out. As a result, I felt even more like Quasimodo, being the only one in the tower, and often the only one in the chapel. I actually really enjoyed it! I guess that’s not surprising.

We received many comments from the campus community in those first weeks expressing gratitude for the return of the bells. The carillon is unique in many ways—one being that it is the perfect social-distance instrument. I never interact with the audience, or even know who is listening. With very little live music in the city, I felt that I was able to contribute something even more powerful to the community.

Was training the students a challengeWere there new protocols you had to enact because of COVID-19?

Student access to the instrument began again on Oct. 5, almost seven months after the shutdown. That is a long time! Three months of separation for me was hard; I can’t imagine seven. The students were all very understanding and patient, of course, and I was very glad to be able to return access to them. Of course, there are many new protocols—health attestations, hand-washing, masked usage of the instruments, only one person allowed in a room at a time, an hour of flush time between room usage, 24-hour practice reservations and more. I have been impressed with how well everyone has been following the new protocols.

Normally in the Autumn Quarter, we would have taken new students into the carillon program, training new students over a period of six weeks before auditioning them to join the [UChicago] Guild [of Carillonneurs]. We are delaying this process to a later quarter, given that the audition process usually sees about 50 new students taking lessons each week from the returning 15 students. That would just be too many users at the moment.

So all of the carillon players right now have been playing for at least a year. They know the instrument, the building, know how to navigate the tower on their own, and have some repertoire of music built up.

Typically I would teach each student on the practice carillon each week. I’ve been able to continue this virtually, with the student playing the practice instrument while I watch over Zoom. We also have a high-quality recording system in the tower, and more students are making recordings of themselves, for us to listen to together during a virtual lesson and talk about how to improve.

Is the carillon being played less than it would have been before?Are you still able to take and play requests?

Since Oct. 5, we have resumed twice daily carillon recitals, at noon and 5 p.m., six days a week—back to our normal schedule. We still have our request form active, and I was able to take several requests over the summer.

As a musician yourself, what has come up for you during the pandemic in terms of your work and practice? How are you being inspired these days?

Over the summer, being the only one back on the instrument for three months, I played more music—five hours of music each week—than I have in years! I set a goal for myself to not repeat a song and play different music every day. I played through my entire repertoire, resurrecting pieces that I hadn’t played in years, and was able to make it four weeks (20 hours of music) before needing to start over again.

More so than ever before, I was even more inspired to take requests from the community. I would usually post videos of requested songs online twice a week. Some of the most endearing requests came from small children, ages two to five. I heard from several parents (across the world!) that their child had taken to watching bell videos, carillon videos, and were fascinated with the instrument. Some asked for postcards, CDs, T-shirts from our gift shop. One parent told me that their child will often play and pretend to be me—to be Joey Brink (lol)—like they saw in a particular YouTube video where I was being interviewed. Another one set-up a video chat with me to say hi to their kid. Perhaps because I also have a young daughter, these moments were the most special for me.

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