Tunes from the Tower

University of Chicago Guild of Carillonneurs at Rockefeller Chapel

From November 2016

By Anne Hartman Raether

When Simone Browne told her friends and family she had decided to give the carillon a try, they were puzzled. The second-year had stumbled across a Facebook post offering carillon lessons taught by members of the University of Chicago Guild of Carillonneurs at Rockefeller Chapel, and opted to give it a shot, intrigued by the fact that few knew what a carillon was, let alone how to play the instrument.

These days, Browne’s family and friends are embracing her newfound interest, and she is enjoying learning basic techniques from the fellow UChicago students who make up the guild. These 10 students take weekly lessons from University Carillonneur Joey Brink. Each year, the guild welcomes interested students who can read music to take six lessons from guild members on Rockefeller’s electronic practice carillons before auditioning to become guild members themselves. This year, 27 students are vying for five spots.

For Browne, who was a member of her high school orchestra and has studied the cello for nine years, learning the carillon felt like a natural way to live the UChicago experience.

“I figure if there’s one thing this school is known for, it’s being unique and doing weird things,” Browne said. “I wanted to play a cool instrument that I wouldn’t have a chance to learn at another place.”

Rockefeller Chapel’s carillon is indeed unique; by total weight, it is the second-largest musical instrument of any kind in the world. Built in 1932, the carillon consists of 72 bells made from 100 tons of bronze that reside in the chapel’s tower and are played from a mechanical keyboard. The UChicago campus is serenaded twice daily by Brink and guild members, with the tunes ranging from classical music to pop hits (Brink said “Hotline Bling” by Drake was one of the most buzzed about songs played last year). It’s also common for the music to tie into current events: “Go, Cubs, Go” was played throughout the World Series, and Prince and David Bowie songs filled the Quad after the musicians passed away.

Each guild member climbs the 271 steps to the top of the tower once a week to play for campus, in addition to their weekly lesson on the electronic practice instrument.

Since arriving at the University last year, Brink has also worked to make the guild more of a social experience for members. The Guild eats dinner together twice a month and travels to play other carillons, including a recent trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan. In addition to weekly concerts, the members gather in the tower twice a year for programmed recitals, often offering the first chance for guild members to visually connect the music being played with their fellow musicians. Brink knew the benefits of adding a social aspect to the guild from personal experience—his own passion for the carillon took root while he was an undergraduate at Yale University and a member of a similar guild there.

Guild members also take on the task of teaching interested students like Browne basic carillon techniques, such as the fist motions used to strike the keys, how to sit properly, and how to use the pedals.

Beyond the basics, it’s important for carillonneurs to add their own interpretation to the pieces, said third-year Josh Kaufman, a member of the guild who’s heading the audition process.

“A lot of people think the bells are mechanically played. Throughout this audition process, I’m trying to make it clear that we are not machines. Learning the notes is important, but it’s not enough,” Kaufman said, adding that playing with expression and dynamics is often more valuable than perfectly executing a piece.

As a guild member for the past two years, Kaufman has grown more comfortable with adding his own flair to songs—his favorite piece he’s played was an improvisation based off of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music.

For Kaufman, the experience in the guild has been a hallmark of his time at UChicago.

“Rockefeller’s carillon was restored eight years ago, and it’s in fantastic condition,” Kaufman said. “To have the opportunity to play that carillon a half-hour a week, and to take lessons from Joey, who’s one of the best carillonneurs in the world, it’s really fantastic. I couldn’t ask anything more from Rockefeller or this University.”

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