The Purple Valley is alive with the sound of bell-ringing

For most people, “The Guild of Carillonneurs” probably conjures up images of a band of medieval bards wandering the land, chanting and wearing shadowy cloaks. However, the actual home to this little-known guild is in the tranquility of the Purple Valley. And while the name carillonneurs may not ring a bell, everyone on campus is well-versed in the work of this exclusive group of students. In fact, every day brings three reminders of the unique nature of these students’ campus job from the top of Thompson Chapel: bell-ringing. And don’t worry if you don’t know how to pronounce their obscure appellation – neither do they.

“I don’t know, carillonneurs, carillonneuuuuuuuurs,” Dan Kohane ’12 said, stretching the last syllable dramatically. He shrugged, “Bell ringers.”

Kohane is one of eleven students at the College who play nearly every day at 9:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. with most of Williamstown as an audience. Each time, Kohane and his cohorts must clamber up the narrow stairwell in Thompson Chapel to a small room that is one of the most heavily secured places on campus – to get in, you have to know the code for the keypad and get the key from Campus Safety and Security designated solely for bell-ringers. Or, in my case, you can just get assigned to write an article about them and tag along.

On a drizzly afternoon last week, I met Nina Piazza ’12 up in Thompson Chapel for one of her weekly shifts. The room is small and sparsely decorated with a wooden chair and a couple of stools that look like they’ve been there a few decades. An electric keyboard is tucked in the corner, oddly modern alongside the rest of the dark, wooden décor. A clock hangs on the wall and is ironically several minutes fast. The only light comes from two small windows at either end of the room and a pair of naked bulbs hanging by chains over the main attraction: a wide, wooden contraption with 10 foot-long levers that are connected by cables running straight up through the cement ceiling to the bells themselves.

“Want to pick some songs?” Piazza said, offering me a white binder full of specially arranged music for the bells. There was a somewhat limited selection. “Some songs don’t work because if you look at the keyboard, it doesn’t have the full chromatic scale, it just has a certain number of notes.” I plucked out “A Whole New World,” since it was one of the only ones I recognized. “Good choice,” she said. At precisely 1:50 p.m., she started to play. “Playing” the bells involves pushing down one or more of the 10 levers connected to a corresponding bell.

“It’s more challenging than one might expect to push those things down,” Kohane said. It’s difficult not just physically: With a solid cement barrier between the ringing room and the bells, it’s hard to make out the sound of the music over the thumping of the levers. They also don’t get any practice time, so when the bell-ringers do play, they just have to go for it.

“We always say that as long as no one is standing outside of Thompson Chapel watching and waiting for you to come out and laugh at you, you’re okay,” Piazza said. The ringers are all quite capable musicians, though, having gone through a competitive job application process last winter that even included auditions.

“People were just playing the bells that entire day, pretty badly,” Piazza said of the auditions.
After playing for about 10 minutes (and even letting me play a few notes), we packed up and Piazza went through the elaborate steps of securing the premises. As we were leaving, I couldn’t help but peer curiously up the fire-escape-like staircase to the bells themselves. It is probably the only place on campus that is more secure than the ringing room – there’s another keypad with a separate security code to get up there. Neither Piazza nor Kohane has ever been up there; the extra barriers were added just last year.

“My freshman year it was much easier to get up there, but now they added the whole security system,” Kohane said.

If you’re getting tired of hearing “A Whole New World” and “The Hills are Alive” (although really, how could you?) the bell-ringers are open to new suggestions, but keep in mind that only some songs suit the bells.

“I’ve been trying to find some classic rock tunes that will work, but there are only so many notes,” Kohane said.

And unfortunately making the necessary changes to allow a wider range of songs is just unfeasible. “If we wanted to add two more octaves, it would be like a million dollars,” Piazza said. No one seems to be in any particular hurry to make that commitment; the unusual assortment of notes makes our bells unique. “One guy even wrote a set of songs just for our bells,” she said.

Your devoted carillonneurs would also like you to know that, contrary to popular perception, they have nothing to do with the Lasell Gymnasium bells.

“We are not in charge of the bells that chime the hours, which yes, they are always three minutes early and a half an hour off, not our fault – that’s in Lasell, an electronic thing, we have nothing do with it,” Kohane said with some frustration. And for these bell ringers, the oft-detested bells in Lasell are just a daily, loud, incessant reminder of the fact that there are things that we as humans can still do better than machines.