Truth about bells rings out

Elena Traister ’01 was not sure what she had gotten herself into. When she found out that fellow Chamber Singer Moira Seinkamp ‘98 was one of the people that made the bells ring out from the top of Thompson Memorial Chapel once a day, Traister thought it would be interesting to observe Seinkamp playing. Only now, the problem was that Seinkamp was making Traister’s observation more interactive than Traister had expected.

“She told me, ‘Okay, pick a song, you have to play it,’” Traister recalled.

Elena stared in awe at the wooden console with its heavy piano key-like levers that connect to steel cables, running three stories above. Here, at the top of the Cathedral, where springs ring out an ear-shattering gong from any one of 12 bells, she prepared to make music for the whole campus to hear.

“I picked ‘On Top of Old Smokey,’ and Moira helped me along. I was very nervous, and all of the wooden handles looked alike. They didn’t have notes on them and I was trying to count and figure out what was what note. [Moira] was frantically pointing out which ones I should play when I got stuck,” Traister said. Even so, Traister remembers the incident fondly. “That was a thrill, because it was really fun to play it and hear it and know that everybody else could hear it,” she added.

At Seinkamp’s urging, Traister gave her name to the Chaplain’s office and said she would be interested in a job when two of the bell ringers graduated that spring.

“The next thing I knew,” said Traister, “they called me back and said I had a job. I think Moira pulled some strings for me.”

This year Traister takes turns sounding the bells for the whole campus with Dan Suver ’99 and Ayesha Johnson ’99. Suver has been playing for the last three years and Johnson took over this semester when another student went abroad.

Traister, who has been playing piano since she was six years old and is a member of the Chamber Singers and the handbell choir, enjoys playing the bells as another form of musical expression. “This is just another part of how I try to make music. I definitely like the whole idea of playing huge bells in a church that’s the highest point for miles around,” said Traister.

But Traister also takes something else from her job. “If people are walking by, it might cheer them up before an exam. When I have an exam, I love playing the bells because I get all this energy out and I’m totally relaxed,” she said.

The bell ringers also arrange and transcribe the songs that so often amuse first-years and visitors to the campus. Traister has arranged 12 songs. The hardest one of these to play is “Cecilia,” due to the constant harmony, which requires playing two levers at the same time. She is also a big fan of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Ashokan Farewell.”

Suver, like Traister and Johnson, does not deliberate too much in choosing songs to play. Actually, Johnson claims to have a complex mathematical system involving multi-variable calculus to help her choose.

“I try to mix it up. I often play the new pieces that we’ve just transcribed, just to get variety. I really like ‘The Road to Isles,’ which Moira transcribed right before she left,” said Suver.

One song, though, does constitute a faux-pas to Suver. “I avoid the “Imperial Death March” from Star Wars, because a lot of people joke about it coming from a church. It never quite fit in my head as something that should be coming out of a church.”

Suver says a sense of tradition makes him appreciate the bells. “It’s something that people remember about Williams,” said Suver. “I talk to alumni and they remember hearing the bells every day. Sometimes I run into alum bell ringers. They like to come up and play and sometimes they play with me.”

The bell tower is not the most technologically advanced feature of Williams campus, which may come as a surprise to those students who think the bells play automatically on command of a computer system. But at the same time this is not a scene out of a medieval storybook.

“What I usually run into is people thinking that, instead of playing levers, we swing on ropes like Quasimodo. That is actually something similar to what I thought the bells were going to be like, and I have to admit that was somewhat of a draw for me,” said Suver.

Johnson, too, admits that she might have been a little disappointed when she first watched Suver play and saw the console that controls the bells. “Ever since I was a kid I was fascinated by bell towers and bell ringing. And I always wanted to be that kid in the Sound of Music who goes flying up and down on the bell rope while he’s ringing the wedding bell at the end,” said Johnson.

The aging bells are constantly undergoing repairs. Traister remembers having to hold together the connection between the cable and the lever with her hand while playing a song earlier this year. An independent service company rotates the bells every year so that the ringing apparatus does not wear out the varnish on one part of the bell. Two years ago, an extensive renovation replaced the inch-thick steel cables with new ones. As a result, the bells require much less strength to play.

Even though the job is sometimes anonymous and students have a lot of misconceptions about the playing itself, Johnson likes the feeling that everyone is listening. “I love the power. It’s better than my radio show because people have no choice: the bells pervade campus,” said Johnson.

Of course, as with any job, there are a few drawbacks. Said Johnson, “I don’t mind bats in general, but I just learned in Virology that bats are fantastic spreaders of rabies.”

Traister and Suver both say they will take anyone who asks up to the bell tower to watch them play. But beware, if they find out you have any musical background, they’ll make you play a song.

The Chaplain’s Office will be accepting applications for two openings when Johnson and Suver graduate this spring. Preference goes to those students on financial aid and with musical background.

For those that may be replacing her, Johnson has one piece of advice. “Don’t try to catch a dive-bombing bat with your jacket – it doesn’t work.”

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