For Whom the Bell Tolls: Bell and Scroll Bring Foss Hill Alive with the “Sound of Music”
Most University students have enjoyed that moment, while trudging across Foss Hill between classes, when they suddenly notice the bells ringing across campus. Deciphering which song is playing is sometimes a challenge, and figuring it out is always satisfying, whether it be Death Cab for Cutie or a show tune. But who is in the tower making the music resound across campus?
The bell-ringers comprise a pseudo-secret society called Bell and Scroll that was created in the 1990s by members of the classes of ’02, and ’03. At that time, the bells were largely silent; they rang only before and after commencement ceremonies, for which music students were hired to ring them. The idea for the society first formed in 1997 when Professor of German Studies Emeritus Peter Frenzel, was in charge of organizing the 1997 commencement and could not find anyone to play the bells.
“So I figured, well, I guess I could do it,” Frenzel said. “I went up and learned the bells, rudimentarily. I played before commencement, and then went up to the top of Foss Hill and led the procession down to Andrus Field. Then after the ceremony, I led them out and ran back up [to the bell-tower] as fast as I could.”
He played the bells several times after that, going by the “bell-name” and pseudonym Ernest Toller, which he created for himself. In the fall of ’98, he decided to share his self-taught knowledge with students, and asked The Argus to publish a small article about the bells to advertise.
“The next day, I had a knock on my office door and in walked Holly Schroll ’02, who was a freshman, and she said ‘I want to learn the bells,’” Frenzel said. “So we went up there, and between the two of us we sort of figured out how to do it most effectively.”
The society’s name, Bell and Scroll, was created partially as a play on Holly Schroll’s name. She later recruited three more students to learn how to play, all of whom comprised the original society. They began ringing the bells daily between 12 and 1 p.m. In 2005, the society decided that they wanted to form a complete carillon, which consists of 23 bells or more. At the time, there were only 16 bells in the tower.
The original set, donated in 1918 by the class of 1863, included only eleven bells. This instrument was called a chime, which by definition consists of more than nine but less than 23 bells. The bells were cast by Mears and Stainbank, the same English firm that cast the Liberty Bell. In the years after the first bells were installed, they were played twice a day: once to wake the campus at 5:30 a.m., and once at Vespers. In 1966, an anonymous gift (later revealed to be donated by President Victor P. Butterfield during his last year in office) allowed the University to repair the original bells and purchase five more, bringing the total to 16. This enabled the ringers to play many more tunes, but interestingly, not the Wesleyan fight song. For almost 40 years after the Butterfield bells were installed, nothing more would be done to the instrument.
In 2005, Bell and Scroll set out to raise enough funds for eight more bells, which would bring the number to 24—a full carillon—and increase the ringers’ options for what could be played. However, according to Frenzel, each bell costs about $25,000, so fund-raising was not easy.
In the end, the majority of funding for the bells was donated by alumni and consequently named for them: Engel Bell, Andrus Bell, Broker Bell, Frenzel Bell, Weiner Bell, Harvey Bell (from the family of one of the original members), Jenkins Bell, and Woodhouse Bell. The money that paid for the Frenzel Bell was actually a gift to Professor Frenzel and his wife for their fortieth wedding anniversary, collected by their friends and completed by a donation from Doug Bennett, the president of the University at the time.
“It’s been great fun, being associated with the bells, and with the generations of students that come through,” Frenzel said. “I’ve been retired for eight, nine years now, so I don’t see many students besides the ringers.”
Since his retirement, Frenzel has taken a step back from the society. He hosts dinners periodically for the ringers, but they have become more independent, with certain members taking leadership roles.
Today, there are roughly ten to twelve people in Bell and Scroll. Two of the ringers who take an administrative role in the society agreed to speak to me on the condition of anonymity. I have given them the pseudonyms of Mears and Stainbank (after the firm that cast our original bells). Stainbank described their role in the society.
“We sometimes provide ringing services for weddings, so we organize contracts for things like that, along with general organizational stuff like managing lists of apprentices and coordinating with P-Safe to make sure we can access the tower,” he said.
Members join by sending an email to a certain Wesleyan email address, approaching people whom they know or suspect are in the group, or simply coming up to the bell-tower with a ringer during the lunch hour. Sometimes new ringers are approached by existing members of the society and invited to join.
“Sophomore year, I got an invitation from one of my friends,” Mears said. “I was ‘tapped,’ as it were, and I joined. It was my first summer session at Wesleyan: during that time I had full access to the bell tower and was pretty much the only one here, so I’d be ringing pretty much every day. By the time I came back [in the fall semester], I had a lot of experience and basically started running things.”
Once they become members, each ringer chooses his or her time-slot for ringing the carillon. Members divide up the lunch-hour into two half-hour slots, and apprentices, who are learning how to play the carillon, practice between five and nine p.m.; there are also smaller practice chimes in the bell-tower that don’t resonate outside of the room, so as not to disturb those nearby.
“You can’t go up just any time,” Stainbank said. “We can only play during the lunch hour (from noon to one) and from five to nine p.m., because otherwise it bothers the people who work in North and South College. You can hear it on Main Street. It carries to certain places more than others.”
Members and apprentices usually have some experience playing the keyboard or pipe organ, percussion, or other instruments. However, although most of the ringers have some background in music, it is not necessary.
“One example that our faculty advisor gave was of this one kid who did not play any music but really wanted to do it, so he worked really hard for three months until he was good,” Steinbank said. “He pretty much learned music off of the carillon. It was pretty cool. Probably painful for the people who heard it, but it was cool for him.”
Ringers can choose what they want to play each day. Each member has his or her own music stored in the bell-tower, and there is a general group repertoire to choose from as well.
“The tradition would be to have a peal, where each ringer has something they start and end with,” Mears said.
Both he and Stainbank have their own favorite songs to start off their shifts. Stainbank described his most common song of choice:
“One of my favorite things to play is ‘My Favorite Things.’ I usually play it every time I start my session. I like the tune, but the reason is actually the way it falls—it’s a really cool motion with your hands crossing over each other.”
Beneath the belfry itself, located in Old South College, is a small room that houses the actual instrument. It is played by pushing down on wooden batons to hit the clappers against the bells. The carillon is in the center of the room. The room also contains old metal ringers from inside the bells, which were replaced and subsequently piled up in one corner; an Ikea shelf of various music; practice chimes for apprentices; and a desk with a phone, for the administrators to reach the tower or the neighbors to complain.
“During commencement,” Mears said, “there’s lots of communication going back and forth to say ‘Start ringing! Stop ringing! Oh my God, what are you doing, you’re ringing as they’re walking, you fool!’”
One noteworthy feature of the tower room is a trapdoor that opens up into a crawlspace. The crawlspace, which allegedly housed a graduate student one summer, contains furniture, old wall hangings, pictures of past ringers, a diagram of the bell-tower, a fact chart about the bells (including names, weights, and sketches), and a list of the inscriptions on the first eleven bells. Each of the original bells is inscribed with a dedication; for example, bell number two reads: “For the young man, heir of the past, maker of the future, I ring.”
For the purposes of writing this article, I was given permission by the society to visit the tower and see the bells. I climbed the ladder from the tower room and went into the actual belfry, where I stood amongst, and looked up into, the bells. I balanced myself between the largest bells, and looked up at the progressively smaller bells above them. Stainbank played some very soft notes for me so that I could see how they worked, although he did me the courtesy of not playing loudly, which he said would literally deafen me.
Because the belfry is exposed to the outdoors, unwanted visitors from outside will sometimes enter through it, or else through the window in the tower room if it is left open.
“We’ve left the window open and there have been times when there have just been birds in here freaking out,” Stainbank said. “One time I came up here with a friend and an extremely agitated squirrel was just sprinting around the bell-tower, then ran over and jumped into the desk.”
Because of these incidents, the ringers have to be sure that the trapdoors and window are shut and the lights are off before they leave the tower. Besides the duties of ringing and keeping the society secret, this is their only other main rule.
So how secret is “secret?” The society itself is not particularly structured around a group dynamic; it is mostly run by email, and only meets in person every so often for dinners with Frenzel. Everyone in the society, plus apprentices, knows who else belongs to the society, but people outside of it are generally kept in the dark. According to Mears, this can lead to some difficulty, since the Wesleyan ringers are mostly self-taught or taught by Professor Frenzel (who taught himself as well).
“It’s such a small community, and because it’s pseudo-secret it’s hard to get information about these things,” Mears said.
Some new information came with the Cornell bell-ringing student group, the Chimesmasters, when they came to visit Wesleyan and see the carillon here.
“They actually have a chime, not a full carillon, which has fewer bells,” Mears said. “But they have a pedal system, and I’ve seen videos of them using it. Just to have these eight people come by and play on our carillon…I’ve never had an experience before with people who actually know what they’re doing—we’re all just kind of teaching ourselves, and Peter teaches us.”
The Cornell visit, besides teaching Bell and Scroll members new information about certain technical aspects of the carillon, inspired Mears and Stainbank to keep the group up-to-date in a creative and organized way. They have a Twitter account, on which ringers are encouraged to tweet what they are playing during their shifts; they have created an official system with contracts to hire their services for special occasions like weddings; and they organize the recently renovated tower-room in which they play.
“It always brightens my day when I see someone’s status on Facebook saying ‘Oh, I heard this playing on the bells,’ and I go ‘Yes, you did!,’” Mears said. “It brightens my day, and hopefully theirs too.”