Students with, without musical background welcomed to learn carillon

Tin-Shi Tam, associate professor at ISU, plays Christmas themed tunes on the Carillon on Dec. 10 at the Campanile. Tin-Shi plays the Carillon every weekday at noon.

Wendy Cardwell

Each day when the clock strikes noon, the bells of the campanile echo all throughout campus for students and staff to hear. 

Tin-Shi Tam, music professor and the university’s carillonneur, is to thank for those tunes.

She is also the reason numerous students know how to play the carillon.

Tam started working at Iowa State in 1994. Since then, she has taught thousands of students the practice of playing the carillon.

“I was introduced to this instrument when I was at graduate school at the University of Michigan,” Tam said. “I heard the bells and thought it was extremely intriguing. I took a tour and immediately began to take lessons.”

According to the Iowa State University Department of Music, Edgar W. Stanton, who graduated with the first class in 1872, donated the bells of Iowa State. When his wife died in 1895, he established a freestanding tower with a chime of 10 bells. In 1929, 26 bells and a playing console were added in memory of Stanton when he passed.

All ISU students are welcome to take carillon lessons. These lessons provide one credit each semester. Students are given 30 minute private lessons one day each week for a whole semester. There is no need for students to have a musical background.

“You absolutely do not need to have a musical background,” Tam said. “The only thing that will help is if you are able to read music, but it is not required.” 

Carillon players use their knuckles to press down, instead of their fingers like on the piano.

“Coming into freshman year, I was able to play the piano very well,” said Erin Reger, senior in accounting. “One thing that is significantly different about playing the carillon is that instead of your left hand playing the bass clef, your feet do. Both your hands then play the treble clef.” 

Although there are up to three concerts a semester, the carillon students are required to play in a concert, while Tam plays two concerts earlier in the semester. The latest concert was Dec. 12, and featured current carillon students Cayla Cunningham, Johnathan Germick, Nathaniel Han and Erin Reger.

A few songs they performed include, “We Wish you a Merry Christmas,” Lady Gaga’s “Twist with a Twist” and “Image Number Two.”

“We’re all playing different parts of the song at the same time,” Reger said. “I might be playing one note when the person on my right has to play that same note a second after me, so I have to be sure to get my hands out of the way.”

This year, Reger is a graduating senior, so she will be performing the graduating bells of Iowa State at the concert.

At the end of each semester, each carillon student must present a final project. In previous years, students have related the project to their major. A mechanical engineering student might build a model of the campanile with the bells included. Other students have baked cakes in the shape of the campanile.

“In the beginning of the semester, we took a carillon field trip to the University of Nebraska-Omaha, to visit their campanile,” Cunningham, junior in elementary education, said. “During that trip, I took numerous pictures to create a YouTube video that is about five and a half minutes long. Dr. Tam helped me create background music for the carillon. I also have included an essay and news letter with my project.”

Each semester, the carillon students take a field trip to different carillons. Since some of the students have been playing for a few years, they have been able to visit all of the carillons located in the Midwest. There are three in Minnesota and one in Nebraska. Most of the carillons in the Midwest are located inside of churches.

“Playing the carillon is so unique,” Cunningham said. “My favorite part is being able to have access up in the campanile to play my songs at night. It is so cool to be playing in the campanile without having anyone know who is playing.”