Bells ring out from the Campanile as KU students Megan McCoy and Aidan Hill hit the baton keys inside the tower. The song they’re playing is a slower tempo, but the tune is still recognizable — it’s “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire.
“It’s very powerful playing something so big that you can hear it all the way around campus,” McCoy said.
Most KU students don’t get to walk through the Campanile before graduation — and fewer get to play the bells. But couple McCoy and Hill are among two of six students this semester learning to play the bells of the Campanile, which are also called the carillon.
Natives of the Wichita area, the two met due to their shared love of pipe organs. McCoy has been playing the pipe organ since she was in the 6th grade and Hill since the 5th grade. They’ve known each other for years, but they started dating about eight months ago.
Recently, the two decided to take up a class to learn to play the carillon. For them, the class was a fun way to round out their musical talents, but also a way to duet on the instrument.
Together, the couple has transcribed “September,” which they played on the 21st night of September like the popular song lyrics say. They also plan to transcribe a carillon version of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s "Carol of the Bells."
“We wanted to do some creative transcriptions,” Hill said jokingly.
Taught by KU carillonneur Elizabeth Berghout, the class is in the School of Music. Each semester she teaches anywhere from six to 10 students who come from a variety of fields of study. McCoy and Hill also meet with Berghout once a week for private lessons.
It takes 70 steps on a tiny spiral staircase to get to the carillon room to play the bells. There are two rooms in the Campanile tower, including a room where students can practice and a room where they actually play the bells.
McCoy said she and Hill spend most of their time in the practice room because when they play, everyone can hear it.
“It takes a special amount of courage,” Hill said.
Much like a pipe organ, playing the 53 bells of the Campanile’s carillon takes both hands and feet.
Bells range in size from the largest, which is 7 feet tall, to the smallest, which can be held in someone’s hand — and McCoy said you can feel the difference in the size when playing. She said it takes much more effort to hit the larger bells.
There’s only about 200 carillon towers in North America, Berghout said, and the Campanile carillon is the only one in Kansas. Each of the 53 bells inside the Campanile have a name written on them, Berghout said. Bell #31 C Sharp is inscribed as Phog Allen and the largest bell is inscribed Olin Templin.
For students who are concerned about the supposed curse of the Campanile, Berghout said there is a loophole.
“I just tell students to remember what door they come through,” Berghout said.
McCoy and Hill don’t necessarily plan to pursue a career in carillon. McCoy wants to be a choral director, while Hill wants to compose and perform music. But both have enjoyed learning carillon.
“The best thing we can do as musicians is introduce ourselves to as many kinds of music and instruments as we can,” Hill said.
Hill said he likes the carillon because it’s such a fun and unique instrument, but his favorite part about playing is knowing that he always has an audience.
“They don’t have to show up but they’ll hear it no matter what,” Hill said.