One-on-One with Tin-Shi Tam

Cownie Professor of Music and University Carillonneur Tin-Shi Tam plays concerts on the carillon in the campanile on Central Campus every weekday around noon. Tam has been playing these daily concerts for 25 years.

Kelby Wingert

Tin-Shi Tam, Cownie Professor of Music and university carillonneur, plays concerts on the carillon in the campanile on Central Campus every weekday around noon. Tam has been playing these daily concerts for 20 years.

This summer, in addition to Tam’s weekday concerts, Iowa State will host guest carillonneurs in its summer concert series June 10, July 8, August 5 and Sept. 2. 

How did you get started playing the carillon?

I started when I was in grad school. I walked around campus and, just like here at Iowa State, heard the bells and went up to the tower to check it out. It fascinated me, so I started to learn how to play and here I am.

Is playing the carillon similar to playing the piano?

Yes and no. The mechanism, or action, is similar to a piano in the sense that they have a hammer, which the carillon has a clapper, strike on the strings and for the carillon, it strikes on the bell. So, in that sense, they are similar. Also, the layout of the keyboard is similar to a piano keyboard, but you realize the keys are much wider apart than a piano’s keyboard and the action is much more heavier than the piano keyboard. So, instead of using the fingers to play, for playing the carillon, I need to use a fist to play. So I close my hand and use a fist, kind of gently, to tap on the key. 

What other instruments do you play?

I play basically keyboard [instruments]: piano, organ, computer keyboard, electronic keyboard. Anything with a keyboard. 

What do you like about playing keyboard instruments?

I don’t have to carry the instruments with me. I got to travel to places in order to play the instrument, especially for the carillon. I got to travel and got to see different instruments. The neat thing about the carillon is every carillon is different. Including how you get up to the tower, how the instrument is set up, the keyboards are different, the bells are different, even though the cast might be from the same bell foundry, they still sound different. And the best part is you can go up to the bell chamber and feel like you’re on top of the world. You can see the best view of the city or the campus. 

Where have you traveled to play?

A lot of different places have carillons. European countries like Germany, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, France. I’ve been to Australia [and] Asia. I’ve been to Korea [and] Japan.

What brought you to Iowa State?

The carillon. The Bells of Iowa State.

What is your favorite song to play on the carillon?

Anything that works on this instrument and sounds well on the bells, I like to play.

Is there anything you don’t like to play?

Anything that sounds awful. Sometimes I do arrangements and sometimes the music doesn’t work too well compared to the others. I remember the first time I started arranging requests, I got a lot of country music and a lot of requests for heavy metal music, so it took me a while to understand how I can make it sound well on the bells and also be recognizable. And that’s the challenge, and I’m still fiddling around and trying to find a way. I think every time people get back to me and say, “What’s the tune that you just played? It sounds familiar to me,” or maybe they thought they recognized it, then I’m happy. 

What are some of the more interesting song requests you’ve gotten?

Just like I said before, country music and how I’m going to get that twangy sound on the carillon. Every type of music, as long as it works and make it sound great, then it’s good for me.

How do you get through the concerts every day during the cold winter months and the hot and humid summer?

[During the winter, I] bundle up. We have air and heat, a pretty good central system. The playing cabin is heated and has air. [During the summer, I have] a wet towel and a bottle of water. That’s how I get through.