Keep Calm and Carillon: the Bells of Rockefeller Chapel

Students master the art of playing the Rockefeller Chapel carillon through music program.
Josh Kaufman sits at the carillon bench in Rockefeller Chapel, hands on the large, wooden, piano-like keys that control the bells.

Like most people, before he came to UChicago, Joshua Kaufman (AB '18) didn’t know how to play the carillon. Though he has played the piano for 16 years and the marimba for 13 years, it wasn’t until he climbed the 217 steps to the top of Rockefeller that he realized the carillon was another instrument he yearned to master.

During his first week on campus, Kaufman read about the Rockefeller Chapel tower tours in the O-Book and he decided to head up. On the tour, he saw the 72 bells of the carillon and watched the then-University Carillonneur Wylie Crawford masterfully play them for all of campus to hear. 

He signed up for lessons on the spot. 

The Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon was a gift from John D. Rockefeller Jr., the son of the University’s founder. Installed in 1932 and weighing a total of 100 tons of bronze, it is the second-largest musical instrument in the world by weight. The largest is the other Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon, Rockefeller Chapel’s sister instrument, located at Riverside Church in New York City and weighing 102 tons.

Josh Kaufman stand below one of the carillon's giant, gray bells.

Today there are around 600 carillons in the world. At Rockefeller Chapel, student carillonneurs play from the console in the tower. From there, they use their hands and feet to summon music from the bells. The carillon is a purely mechanical instrument. Each key a carillonneur presses is attached to the clapper of a bell. The bell never moves; rather, the clapper is brought to the side of the bell causing it to ring. Each bell has a clapper connected to the playing console.

A connoisseur of music composition, Josh says his background in piano and marimba helped him with the keyboard setup of the instrument. He takes weekly lessons with the University Carillonneur and plays one recital each week.

Josh is a part of the UChicago Guild of Student Carillonneurs, a lesser-known student group centered around the playing of the instrument. The guild aims to bridge the gap between Rockefeller’s tower and the Hyde Park community, making the instrument more accessible to students and accepting song requests through Rockefeller Chapel’s website

Over the past couple of years, the Rockefeller carillon has become infamous— not only for its music, audible across all of Hyde Park, but also for the carillon renderings of pop music that tend to feel ironic amongst the backdrop of the tallest gothic tower in Hyde Park. Most recently, Josh played “Call Me Maybe” before Major Activity Board’s Summer Breeze.

Josh tries to be timely with his song selections — that means “September” by Earth Wind & Fire in September, the Champions League theme song on matchdays for the European soccer tournament, “Final Countdown” by Europe as we approach finals week, “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond on his sister Caroline's birthday; “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley on April Fools’ Day, and so forth.

Though he loves playing late 1990’s and early 2000’s music (for the sake of recognition from the ground) Josh also plays original carillon works, arrangements, and his own compositions. Other than his own compositions, Josh’s favorite song to play is Prelude by legendary carillon composer Ronald Barnes. 

“Its fast-moving rhythms and harmonic journey make it a great way to start my recitals,” he said in an interview. 

Inspired by his piano background, Josh also enjoys jazz-styled improvisation on “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music

The carillon's wooden keys, which operate like a large piano. Onlookers sit in the background during a tour.

Josh has two favorite aspects of playing the carillon. First, unlike a piano recital, Josh says there is less pressure on the performer because from the ground, the musician maintains anonymity. This allows him to enjoy the experience in new ways, free to experiment outside of the standard narrative of traditional carillon music. Second, Josh is able to play basically any music he wants. 

“Everyone on campus has no choice but to hear it!” Josh joked. 

The Guild of Carillonneurs has auditions every Autumn Quarter for prospective carillon students. The program is open to College and graduate students with at least three years left in their degree program and who know how to read treble and bass clefs. The Guild pairs prospective students with members for a six week no-obligation lesson program with both the University carillonneur and more experienced musicians, culminating in an audition day to be a part of the guild. 

In addition to lessons and recitals, the Guild also holds biweekly dinners, group concerts, and the group takes road trips to visit other carillons in the midwest.

They also give tours of the carillon and tower at Rockefeller Chapel at 11:30am and 4:30pm, Tuesday through Friday during the academic year. Guests will climb 271 steps up a spiral staircase, walk across a catwalk above Rockefeller's false ceiling, and come face-to-face with our largest bell (weighing 37,000 lbs) before taking in the 360-degree views from the roof. Each tour is also timed to coincide with a carillon recital at noon or 5pm.

Josh Kaufman stands atop the narrow sandstone balcony of Rockefeller Chapel, smiling at the camera. The view overlooks the Quad and the rooflines of campus

Though he will be moving to New York City, far from the carillon here at UChicago, Josh hopes to continue playing after graduation. It just so happens that there’s a carillon across the street from his office in Manhattan. 

“It’s much smaller,” Josh added.

Rockefeller Chapel is home to many events including concerts with campus groups and visiting artists as well as Sunday services. See the Chapel's Events page for more details.

Tagged: Rockefeller Chapel, carillon, student life, music