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Friday, April 12, 2024

UF Century Tower Carillon students ‘ring’ in the Spring semester

Hidden up twelve flights of stairs, a small group of students sustain a decades-long tradition

Senior Beth Blair in Century Tower on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024.
Senior Beth Blair in Century Tower on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024.

Upon entering Century Tower, a cold breeze clashes with the outside heat. The four walls of brick have dust an inch thick. The winding staircases are dimly lit and adorned with cobwebs. The air smells like dust and rotting wood. 

At the very top, a small room encases a wooden plank instrument capable of controlling 61 bells across five octaves at 157 feet in the air. 

Every semester, a small group of students have the opportunity to play the Century Tower Carillon — an instrument made of bells — ranked among one of the largest university carillons out of the less than 200 nationwide. Since the carillon’s first recital in 1979, each student’s performance is an addition to the tower's historic legacy and unique sound, according to its website. 

Michael Dixon, a 20-year-old UF music composition junior, has played the university’s carillon for two years. Even though his primary instrument is the french horn, the carillon was originally an opportunity to further his composition skills, he said. 

“I wanted to develop my skills on a keyboard, and this seemed like a really unique opportunity to do that,” he said. “I’ve fallen in love with it.”

To play the carillon, each plank, some heavier than others, are connected to a corresponding metal string. The strings are connected to a device ringing the bell from above, known as the clapper. Each metal string has a connector the performer turns to change the tension, and that changes how close the clapper is to the bell. The adjusting process is done before every performance, and Dixon can do it by ear. 

“The right distance [of the clapper] gives the performer the most dynamic control over the instrument,” he said.  

Performers push the planks with their fists, giving them more control over the downward force.

Beth Blair, a 21-year-old UF nursing senior, has been playing the university’s carillon for five semesters. Balancing a nursing degree and multiple extracurriculars, she performs her weekly afternoon recital in her scrubs. Blair believes the carillon made her a better student, she said. 

“It really taught me how to … express myself on a different level that isn’t nursing,” she said. “I would love to see where it takes me.” 

So far, UF carillon’s membership to the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America has taken Blair to play at many carillons, such as Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales, Florida; an Episcopal church in Clearwater; Clemson University in South Carolina and Massachusetts. The guild connects carillon students, appreciators and professors from across the country. 

Blair’s experiences make her grateful for the carillon, she said. 

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“Carillon has given me so much that I never expected,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with that knowledge after I leave UF … I know in some way that it will come back to me.” 

The group is preparing for its upcoming spring festival Feb. 9 and 10. The event will feature compositions from both current and former UF carillon students. 

Laura Ellis, associate director and professor in the UF School of Music, leads the student carillon group. Her love for carillon started in 1990 as a graduate student, she said. 

Now 20 years into her teaching career at UF, she is also the president of The Guild of Carillonneurs in North America. To her, UF stands out against other carillon programs, she said in an email. 

“One thing I am most proud of is the sense of community within the carillon studio at UF,” she wrote. “Everyone is at a different level in their musical journey, but all are encouraged to explore and arrange music that interests them,” she said. 

Playing the carillon is a focused course at UF, complete with weekly group class, one-on-one private lessons, and a performance or ensemble. However, making the competitive list doesn’t come without a background in music, an audition and a sight-read piece. As of Spring 2024, there is a waitlist to enter. 

“I suggest that the [student] bring a prepared piece on their instrument of choice to the audition,” she wrote. “I don’t expect musical virtuosos, but the ability to read music is a must.”

Contact Sara-James Ranta at sranta@alligator.org. Follow her on X @sarajamesranta.

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