Thompson Chapel bells rely on the dedication of student musicians

Imagine this common scene (it works especially well if you imagine yourself living in Morgan): It’s Sunday, and you’ve decided to catch up on sleep. You’ve been out like a light all morning, when suddenly you start to hear music in your dream. It sounds like something ringing, like some kind of hymn. You sit upright in your bed and ponder the question that haunts every Williams student: “What is the deal with the bells?”

Oddly enough, despite the prevalence of the Thompson bells and their distinctive sound on campus, most students know very little about them. The bells are a part of Williams history as old as Thompson itself. In 1904, they were cast out of bronze by the Meneely Bell Company in Troy, N.Y. and installed in the chapel that autumn. Despite being at Williams for nearly a century, the bells still ring true.

Today, the bells are played seven days a week, three times a day at 12:50, 4:00, and 7:00. A small group of students, officially called the Williams College Guild of Carilloneurs, is chosen to play them each year.

At the specified times each day, one Carilloneur mounts the stairs to the room that houses the Carillon, the set of chimes that operates the 10 bells. The Carillon is actually a few floors below the bells. Each key on the Carillon consists of a wooden handle that is attached to a cord. The cords run up through holes in the floors to a set of pulleys, which activate the cords that move the hammers to make the bells ring.

Playing the Carillon is a musical art similar to playing the piano, albeit with a limited keyboard. As one might imagine, many of the Carilloneurs have previous musical experience.

The bells are tuned to one octave of the E-flat scale and one note above it. Two bells are used for the seventh of the scale, one for the natural and one for the flat. The Carilloneurs can thus play songs in E-flat, A-flat and F-minor. Within this range, they have the freedom to select more or less any piece of music. Suggested additions to their library are always welcome.

The Carillon room is filled with sheet music of the different pieces people have transposed and played over the years. Usually the Carilloneurs play hymns, pieces of classical music or college songs. On Homecoming or Mountain Day, you’re guaranteed to hear “The Mountains” emanating from Thompson Chapel, and around the holidays, the Carilloneurs play an assortment of carols and holiday songs.

Although pieces of popular music are often harder to play because their rhythms tend to be more complex, they are nonetheless quite popular. The Chapel has been known to resound with everything from “Fanfare for the Common Man” to “Chopsticks” to “Mary Had A Little Lamb” to “On My Own” from “Les Misérables.”

The Carilloneurs are selected for their positions by way of an application process through the chaplain’s office at the beginning of the year. In fact, being a Carilloneur is a work-study job that pays nicely.

This year, the Carilloneurs are Graeme Biervliet-Schranz ’04, Noah Bell ’05, Lillian Chang ’05, Aaron Helfand ’05, Paul Lindemann ’06 and Joe McDonough ’06. Their jobs allow them to have fun, work creatively and also become involved with a strong college tradition.

“I think the bells are a wonderful tradition at Williams. I am always pleasantly surprised to be walking across campus and suddenly hear the bells start up,” Helfand said.