137 Steps to Carillon Playing

Does the idea of making music out of 20 tons of bronze intrigue you? Then perhaps you should join the approximately seven musicians who take carillon lessons every Sunday afternoon from Robin Austin, University Carillonneur.

The carillon, Austin explains, is a set of cast bronze bells played on a wooden keyboard; foot pedals play the lower notes. Each key is connected to a wire that activates a transmission arm attached to the clapper.

Installed in the Graduate College's Cleveland Tower in 1927, the Class of 1892 Bells were refurbished and rededicated in 1993. Princeton's carillon now has 67 bells, making it the fourth largest in the country in terms of number of bells. It boasts a range of almost six octaves, from the G an octave and a half below middle C (weighing in at six and a half tons) to the D five octaves above middle C (which weighs a mere 13 pounds). The seven-foot keyboard is played with what Austin's beginning students call "fists"; Austin calls them "closed hands."

"Princeton is a wonderful place to teach and to learn the carillon," says Austin, "because we have one of the best instruments in the world."

Hands play treble, feet play bass

What inspires someone to take carillon lessons? Says Lisa Dunkley '83, associate director of Annual Giving, "Learning the carillon is something I've wanted to do since my undergraduate days. What appeals to me about the carillon is its timelessness, and the idea of ascending a stone tower to ring bells - anonymously, but hopefully well - across Princeton."

Says Sulene Chi '99, "One starry night I heard the carillon playing. I thought, wouldn't it be great to create an atmosphere like that. Then I saw the ad for carillon lessons in the Prince."

The lessons, notes Austin, are made available to members of the University community by the Office of Chapel Music and underwritten by the Class of 1892 endowment.

Austin starts his students out with simple melodies like "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," which he says is a French folk tune. As they progress, he might present them with a Bach minuet. He transcribes some of the music himself, but plenty of music scored for carillon is available, he says, through the Guild of Carilloneurs in North America (of which Austin is a board member).

Music for the carillon is scored just like piano music except that the hands play the treble and the feet play the bass. Most of the students have had some keyboard background, but, says Chi, "The tricky part is the pedals. It's hard to watch your hands and your feet as well."

Her appreciation for the special qualities of the carillon have increased with experience. "There is so much more to playing the carillon than just hitting the keys," she says. "You can put your own touch into it and control the tone and the dynamics. It is dazzling to see and hear Mr. Austin play," she adds.

Jan Buley, a Princeton resident who sings in the Chapel choir, says Austin "has a marvelous way of encouraging us to 'Just try.' Robin is really a gift to the University community."

Real people playing

The nascent carillonneurs gather in the practice room in the Graduate College basement every Sunday afternoon. The room is equipped with a practice keyboard attached to xylophone-like bars so the performer can hear what he or she is playing. At 1:00 pm, those ready to essay the real thing climb Cleveland Tower's 137 steps to sit at the carillon console.

"I get them up there as soon as they're comfortable with the idea," says Austin. "If people on the ground hear a wrong note, they'll just know there are real people playing."

With or without student performers, Austin plays until 1:45 every Sunday except during General Examination periods. At the end of June the annual summer carillon recital series commences.

For information about opportunities to play or to learn playing the Princeton University Carillon please contact Robin Austin.

This feature by Caroline Moseley first appeared in the Princeton Weekly Bulletin of April 1, 1996.

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