Reporter Julie Rose unravels the unique art of the carillon. A carillonneur is someone who, at a wedding or funeral, hammers away on wooden pegs with their fists and hands to coax music from large bells. Brigham Young University has a particularly active carillon, with recitals every afternoon — often involving students who have only recently discovered the instrument.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
All summer long we're doing a series about young people with unusual jobs. And today's installment features a gig that's both high-profile and anonymous. Some 180 carillon bell towers dot the United States. They're mostly at churches and on college campuses. But few people rushing to classrooms or to a church service realize there's an actual person up in that tower. Reporter Julie Rose introduces us to one of them in Provo, Utah.
JULIE ROSE, BYLINE: This job starts with a workout.
KYMBERLY STONE: So there are 99 steps.
ROSE: How many?
ROSE: Kymberly Stone climbs the spiral staircase in under 90 seconds. She's one of a handful of graduate students at Brigham Young University hired to play the carillon.
STONE: OK, so this is just the hatch to the bells. Sorry, let me catch my breath.
ROSE: I'm ready to pass out. The 23-year-old has no time to spare before an automated clapper tolls twelve noon on a two-ton bell just overhead.
ROSE: Then it's her turn.
ROSE: She perches on a tall bench in front of what looks like a prehistoric organ Fred Flintstone might play. The keyboard and pedals are made of wooden pegs the size of broomstick handles. You can hear the slap of her skin as Stone hammers the pegs with the edge of her fists.
ROSE: The largest bells have clappers so heavy Stone slams her feet down on the pedals.
ROSE: As she plays, she occasionally glances through the window to see people passing by on the sidewalk 10 stories below. And they don't applaud. Most don't know she exists. And she prefers it that way.
STONE: Like when I did piano in high school people were watching. It was just nerve-racking. And just knowing that up here I'm by myself it's just me and my - just me and my bells just playing music that I love, and it's very low-pressure.
ROSE: Low-pressure except that a lot more people can hear it. I mean, all the way across the city people could hear a wrong note.
STONE: Yes, just keep playing.
DON COOK: It is a very public thing.
ROSE: This is BYU music professor Don Cook, who's trained dozens of carillonneurs, including Kymberly Stone. The best of the bunch spend a couple of hours a week doing daily recitals as part of a graduate assistantship which generally covers tuition and a living stipend. But before they touch the bells, the students spend months practicing on a replica of the console in the tower's basement.
COOK: Now there's a little, yellowed sheet on our bulletin board over here that's called public relations in the carillon. (Laughing). And that indoctrinates them to have respect for their audience.
ROSE: And to not play the same line over and over until you get it right but drive passersby crazy in the process. Stone is well beyond that.
STONE: This piece I love to play. It makes people smile.
ROSE: Movie themes like this one from "Beauty And The Beast" ring from bell towers with increasing frequency. Carillonneurs are trying to keep their centuries-old art form relevant to younger audiences, says Tim Sleep, president of the Guild of Carillonneurs of North America.
TIM SLEEP: If a carillonneur retires, you have to be able to find somebody in the area that's willing to step up and take it over. There's not that many of us so we are, in a way, endangered.
ROSE: Churches and colleges across the country are automating their carillons. And those that continue to hire carillonneurs don't pay much. A part-timer might make as little as $2,000 a year. To earn a modest living, you'd have to play a lot, teach lessons and probably be the organist at a local church. Kymberly Stone hopes to teach at a university with a carillon. And she's launching a YouTube channel to spread her love of the instrument.
STONE: Giving tours is my favorite part of my job. When kids come up here, they get so excited. And so having it available so they can see it online can give them a feel for what it is. And I think some things don't have value until you understand, so I'm hoping to spread understanding so we can boost its value.
ROSE: For NPR New, I'm Julie Rose in Provo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.