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UM alum carries on the tradition of playing the bells

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The bells don’t ring on their own. Five days a week, for just under 10 minutes at noon, a carillonneur plays in the bell tower of Main Hall.

Barbara Ballas has been playing in the bell tower for eight years. Up many flights of stairs and a harrowingly steep staircase in Main Hall lives the carillon, an instrument shaped like an organ attached to Dutch-made carillon bells. It was placed there in 1953, the same year the UM Music Building was built. An automatic machine in the corner rings a bell to mark every half hour, but Ballas said it’s up to her what she wants to play for the day. 

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Barbara Ballas plays the carillon at 12:05, after both of her students plays their piece. Ballas was afraid of carpal tunnel when she first started playing the carillon, but she said once she mastered the wrist motion use to hit the batons, the movement came naturally.

 

“I think that that music at noontime injects just a little bit of the arts out there into the air for everyone, and the arts are what make us human,” Ballas said.

Ballas said this past year was her first official year being fully in charge of playing the carillon. She trained under the previous carillonneur of 20 years, Nancy Cooper, playing just once a week. She said after only three weeks of training, Cooper had her play for the first time. She played what she called the slowest rendition of “Let It Snow.” The carillonneur also plays at commencement, graduation and homecoming. 

A job sponsored by the President's office, the carillonneur is usually the organ professor at the school, but Ballas is an exception, she said. She is a retired piano teacher, with a large music repertoire built up over the years from playing for middle school and elementary school concerts. 

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Ballas shows that day's choice of music. 

 

UM is Ballas’ alma mater. Her three daughters attended UM and her husband worked there too. She got her Bachelor's degree in piano performance and her Master’s in music composition. Her organ instructor at UM, John Ellis, was the carillonneur before Cooper. 

“Because I’m retired, I think that that’s the time of life when you should be giving back to people, to the institution or community that’s important to you,” Ballas said. “I could be doing Meals on Wheels and deliveries, which would be a great thing, but because of my unique skill set, this fits me.”

Inside the bell tower are 47 bells, each with their own dedication, which can be found on plaques going up the steps into Main Hall. The “#1” bell is dedicated to alumnae, with “#2” dedicated to the students. Bell “#21” is the music bell, and one of the sponsors is Ballas’ father-in-law. Ballas said there is room for two more bells, one in D flat and the other in E flat.

Inside each bell is a clapper, which hits the bell to produce the sound. Each clapper is then attached to a wire cable that is then attached to a baton. The batons are what make up the keys of the carillon. The carillon is similar to an organ, with the wood batons layered in rows for the hands and pedals below for the feet to play, which are also connected to the wires. The carillonneur has to hit the batons with a loose fist in order to hit the note hard enough.

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The batons of the carillon are struck with the outside of the fist while simultaneously pushing the foot pedals.

 

Ballas said the heaviest bell weighs just over one ton and the lightest weighs only 20 pounds. The entire collection of bells totals in at 10 tons. When it gets cold, Ballas said she jiggles the wires to loosen them up. If they’re so frozen they could snap, she can’t play that day. She also places a recorder outside one of the windows so she can later hear her performance, something that is hard to do over the rattling and clacking of the wires and batons. 

“Out there, about 100 feet from the building, the way the sidewalk circles or out in the library mall area, those are good places to listen and get the full effect,” Ballas said. 

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A sign posted on the door of the carillon practice room in the music building. Ballas teaches two music students, Tyrel Wilder and Sean Stineford, to play.

 

But Ballas isn’t the only one in the bell tower this semester. Every Wednesday, senior music composition student Tyrel Wilder gets his shot at the carillon. She also started training trombone performance major Sean Stineford, a long-time piano student of hers. Wilder originally got in touch with Ballas when he was working on a composition project. He asked if he could write a piece for it, which Ballas later performed. She encouraged his interest in the bells and trained him and Stineford over the summer. Wilder said he said his favorite part of the carillon is just being able to hear the sound of the bells, but playing them is even better. 

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Carillon student and music composition major Tyrel Wilder waits for the noon bell. Wilder began taking lesson from Ballas in June and Stineford, back right, started in August.

 

Ballas said she wants other people who appreciate the instrument to help keep the tradition going and also cover for her when she needs to take time off.

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Ballas scans the music as she plays.