First-person final: Playing the Campanile carillon

Gretchen Kell playing the carillon.

Gretchen Kell from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs prepares to play her recital piece on the grand carillon. (Photo by Shun Hu)

I thought I’d taken my last college final 30 years ago. But recently, I took another, and this time, it wasn’t in a windowless lecture hall with hundreds of students hunched over blue exam books.

Instead, the test was 200 feet above the ground, on a wooden bench with heavenly views. And any errors I made, if dreadful enough, might send anyone within a seven-mile radius running for cover.

I’d signed up for “Learning to Play the Sather Tower Carillon,” one of more than 200 student-taught DeCal (Democratic Education at Cal) courses at UC Berkeley. In early February, after proving musical ability and serious interest in the 61-bell instrument, I received a congratulatory email, with a heady requirement.

After a month of lectures in Morrison Hall and two months of lessons in nearly soundproof practice rooms in the Jane K. Sather Campanile, my 11 classmates and I could pass the class only by performing in a May recital — on the grand carillon itself. We were to confirm our spots ASAP.

A recital? After only eight lessons? On possibly the loudest, most public instrument in the world?

“It’s a shotgun approach to the carillon,” admitted senior Thomas Le, who, along with many of University Carillonist Jeff Davis’ 15 students, would teach us to play. “But we want people coming out of the class to say, ‘That was the coolest thing ever.’”

“It’s a power trip,” UC Berkeley computer science professor Alexei Efros said in 2014, after auditing the class, like me, “and power trips are scary.”

It was early 2015, and the Campanile’s 100th anniversary had begun. I wanted to join the celebration and, albeit briefly, be part of the largest carillon teaching program in the nation. Old enough to be my classmates’ mother, I replied with a yes. And a gulp.

All about the bells

The first month was romantic. As I walked to our lectures, the 6 p.m. carillon concert was under way, the tower’s white granite glowing against a tie-dyed sunset. High up in the playing cabin, a carillonist — invisible to passersby below — released the bells’ magic into the winter sky.

In class, we heard the dramatic World War I story of Berkeley’s first dozen bells, their trek to America threatened by enemy subs, and of the generous alums who over time grew a 12-bell chime into a grand carillon.

Berkeley's grand carillon has 61 bells, but began in 1917 as a 12-bell chime. (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

Berkeley’s grand carillon has 61 bells, but began in 1917 as a 12-bell chime. (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

We learned of Margaret Murdock, who rang the Berkeley bells for 60 years, and about the 5.25-ton Big Bear bell’s 1983 big squeeze into the belfry, after a chunk of the tower was removed to make way.

We found out how carillon bells are cast, rung and tuned, which countries have the most carillons, and why Davis says Berkeley’s small treble bells “are about the prettiest I’ve heard anywhere in the world.”

Why was I the only one taking notes? Isn’t that what you do in college?

It was a long time until May, but one evening, Le and co-instructor Shun Hu asked what we dreamed of playing at the recital. My classmates’ quickly chose music from movies like “Harry Potter,” “Her” and “My Neighbor Totoro” and from HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

“I don’t know yet,” my 50-something self said, certain it would be classical but, like a teen, not wanting to stick out among my peers.

It didn’t take long before I was caught acting my age.

During a group practice session, one student’s piece got unusually warm applause. “What was that?” I whispered to a classmate nearby. She stared at me kindly, but incredulous. “It was from Frozen,” she said, enunciating the name. “Did you see the movie?’”

Operating instructions

The Campanile may look like a tall, empty column with bells on top. But several of its 14 levels are busy hubs for both paleontology – five floors house fossils — and campanology, the study of bells. Access is limited.

In March, we were escorted to Level 1, our teachers’ hangout. The combo office/library/practice room could have been a construction zone – earplugs sprouted from the musicians’ ears or dangled from cords around their necks. A box of plugs sat on a countertop, a bowl of them next to that.

“You’ll need these,” my instructor, Leslie Chan, said, handing me a hot pink pair. Often enchanting, or like tap-dancing horses, carillon sounds permeate the tower and, inside the tiny rooms that house the practice carillons, are dangerously loud. But the spongy nuggets wouldn’t cooperate, popping out of my ears as soon as I stuffed them in.

I began my first lesson feeling confident. Surely I’d be a quick study, having played the piano since second grade, and the pipe organ since high school. The sheet music Leslie chose for me looked simple, straightforward, without any pedal work.

A carillon's "keys" are broomstick-like handles played with loosely-closed fists. (UC Berkeley photo by Gretchen Kell)

A carillon’s “keys” are broomstick-like handles played with loosely-closed fists. Pedals sound the heaviest, low-toned bells. (UC Berkeley photo by Gretchen Kell)

But while the carillon is a relative of the piano, it’s a distant cousin. Unlike a piano’s ebony and ivory, for example, carillon “keys” are identical broomstick-like wooden handles. Middle C isn’t in the middle, it’s an octave lower.

Luckily, practice carillons have tuned bars that aren’t as loud as bells, so as not to create public disturbance. I vowed to give the earplugs another try, so my playing wouldn’t disturb myself.

But a month later, my hands were forming the loosely-closed fists needed to properly strike the handles. I was starting to relax my wrists and shoulders. And if I messed up, I was to follow Davis’ advice.

“He tells us that the worst thing you can do other than messing up,” said Le, “is to stop and let everyone know you’re messing up.”

Grand carillon finale

All too soon it was Sunday, May 3. The recital for Davis’ students was at 2 p.m., De-Cal’s at 6. For days, I’d stared up at the bells from wherever I was, trying to imagine performing atop one of the world’s tallest clock-and-bell towers.

We clamored for time in the practice rooms and marked our music with last-minute notes. Programs were printed for guests gathering on the Campanile’s esplanade and earplugs were distributed.

Davis retreated for the first recital to Faculty Glade, his favorite spot to hear the carillon and to rate his students’ skills.

An hour before our concert, fog and cold settled over the tower, as well as another harsh reality: After the recital, I’d likely never play a carillon again. Neither would my De-Cal classmates, unless they made it into Davis’ competitive program.

The 12 of us rode the elevator together, then walked single file up the steps to the deck and into a heavy, icy wind. Most of us crowded in the cabin to keep warm while the bells waited for their cues.

They likely hadn’t played a recital before that included Andrew Hozier Byrne’s 2013 hit “Take Me to Church,” “When You Wish Upon a Star,” or “Eleanor Rigby,” but they gave it their all, as did my go-getter classmates, who threw in chords, pedal work and captured everything on their phones.

As for me, the second performer on the program, I made an alarming discovery when I took the bench: I’d forgotten my reading glasses. I could see the music, but not perfectly. I sat very, very still, not letting on.

“Oh, Mom, not again!” I could just hear my 18-year-old say, rolling her eyes at how often I lose them.

I considered my options, none of them good – bow out, quickly leave the bench in hopes I’d find my glasses nearby, or ask a teacher to move me to the end of the program.

But my classmates and teachers were waiting, the program needed to flow, and my final exam couldn’t be rescheduled.

Remembering Davis’ rule, I squinted my eyes and began to play. I felt my fists move, heard the historic bells respond, and I was proud of all 1:47 minutes of my G.F. Handel sonata and minuet.

And not until now did anyone know I’d messed up.