Guild of Bell-Ringers composes soundtrack to College daily life

The Thompson bells, played by a select group of College students, provide a musical pick-me-up throughout a busy week.  Jeremy Markson/Staff photographer.
The Thompson bells, played by a select group of College students, provide a musical pick-me-up throughout a busy week. Jeremy Markson/Staff photographer.

The 12 members of the Williams College Guild of Bell-Ringers form a club that is totally anonymous, but one that also maintains perhaps the most pervasive presence of any student group on campus. Between two and four times daily, one of the bell-ringers climbs up the narrow stairs of Thompson Chapel to send the harmonious notes of some glorious tune out into the mountain air to be heard by all residents of Williamstown. “In some sense, it feels very insular,” Daniel Potter ’16, a bell-ringer, said. The Guild members know the inner workings of the bells, the ringers and the music, while “everyone else just kind of hears what comes out.”

The bells are played by accessing a brick-walled room two flights of stairs above the ground floor of Thompson Chapel. A structure that is somewhat reminiscent of a 10-toned, wooden piano sits in the middle of the room, with ropes running upward from the levers to where the bells themselves are hung at the top of the tower, making them neither accessible nor visible from the room from which they are rung.

To play the bells, the levers of the desired notes are pressed down, an action that requires a surprising amount of force, something this writer learned first-hand. To anyone whose Sunday studying was interrupted by a rather poor rendition of “Whistle While You Work” –  sincere apologies. Strangely, the people who are least able to hear the melody are the bell-players themsleves: not only is the sound muffled by the walls of the room, the clacking thuds of the wooden levers supersede, to some degree, the bells’ music.

To perform even a simple song necessitates that the bell-players move back and forth across the instrument, pulling down the levers with enough strength to coax forth a sound. Nevertheless, playing the bells does not require the same kind of training as violin or piano, said Bell-Ringer Sam Austin ’14, but most of the Guild already had experience with percussion or piano, abilities that transfer well to bell-ringing.

The 10 bells have graced the uppermost point of Thompson Chapel since they were shipped here in October 21, 1904, as the gift of Mrs. M.C. Thompson in memory of her husband, Frederick Ferris Thompson, for whom the Chapel is named. According to Chaplain Office records, the bells are cast of genuine bronze – 78 parts Lake Superior copper and 22 parts Strait Block tin made by the Meneely Bell Company. The  combined weight of all 10 bells is 10,722 pounds.

Each bell-player plays the bells two times per week, at set times. During school days, the schedule is tightly restricted because the Guild can’t disrupt class (so the 12:50 bells can only last ten minutes). On the weekends, there is generally more freedom for the members to play more extensively.

Song choice is up to the individual bell-player, and may be any number of pieces; the room containing the levers to play the bells is also filled with stacks of sheet music. Potter admits that it sometimes takes him as long as five minutes simply to decide what to play. This in itself is somewhat surprising, given that the Williams bells do not constitute an entire chromatic scale. The Guild has to make do with only 10 notes (corresponding to the 10 bells), which means, Bell-Ringer Casey McClellan ’14 said, that one can only play music written in the key of E-flat major, A-flat major or F minor.

Nevertheless, the Guild is able to perform a repertoire that varies considerably. McClellan, a music major, writes her own arrangements for the bells. Sometimes, her selections for the day are themed, but mostly, she said, she likes to “mix and match” so that an Internet meme song is followed by a snippet of something classical. Austin most enjoys playing Simon & Garfunkel’s “Cecilia” or Vampire Weekend’s “Mansard Roof,” while Potter’s favorites are an arrangement of “Bright Morning Star,” “Amazing Grace” and a song from the early 20th century called “Yard by Yard.”

Auditions for new Guild members are held for interested first-years each spring. McClellan, Austin and Potter all became involved with the bells because they knew upperclassmen that rang.

Being a bell-ringer is actually defined as a campus job, meaning that the bell-ringers fill out time cards like all other student employees, and get paid each pay period, though McClellan said that pay is relatively small. The primary motivation for the bell-ringers,  however, isn’t the money. For them, the best part of being a member of the Guild is the audience. “I like playing music and feeling like it’s something other people will hear,” Potter said. “It’s satisfying.” Austin added, “It’s always cool when I arrange a new song and then people recognize it.” All three bell-ringers enjoy seeing references on Williams Students Online or Facebook to songs they play.

Another perk of being a bell-ringer is the trip the Guild takes to the roof of Thompson Chapel each year to see the bells (afterward, they all have dinner together at Chaplain to the College Rick Spalding’s house). “You can see for miles,” Austin said.  “It’s so beautiful and peaceful. It really gives me a sense of perspective on life.” McClellan agreed, adding that when you are standing up there, “There’s nothing higher than you.” Beyond the transcendental nature of the experience, there’s a material benefit as well: “I can take a sweet picture for my Facebook cover photo,” Austin said.