The bells of Norwich’s carillon
have powers to soothe, reward © Dec. 11, 2009, Norwich University Office of Communications

Cadet Joseph Gaskill watches George Matthew play the carillon during a December afternoon lesson in Adam’s Tower at Norwich University.

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photo by Jay EricsonCadet Joseph Gaskill watches carillonneur George Matthew play during a December afternoon lesson in Adam’s Tower at Norwich University.

Students and faculty should be understanding if they hear an off-note in Silent Night, The First Noel or other Christmas carols emanating from the Adams Tower during the holiday season.

The musician playing the bells of Norwich University’s carillon in late afternoon, after retreat, is likely a student performing live—perhaps for the first time. And this is an instrument that, on a good day, can be heard from a mile away.

Talk about pressure.

“It went pretty well,” said Shaquile Adams, a freshman from Bear, Del., who had just played his first set of carols. “In fact, I loved it.”

I have heard from several Norwich alumni who have said that in rough times the sound of the carillon on Friday afternoons was a source of comfort.”

~ George Matthew,
Norwich carillonneur

Eight music students, including a faculty member and University administrator, are taking lessons from George Matthew, Norwich’s official carillonneur, who not only has performed on campus for more than two decades, but shares this unique skill with anyone who displays an interest. Matthew also offers carillon instruction at Middlebury College, the site of Vermont’s only other carillon.

Norwich Veterans’ Advocate Joyce Rivers hasn’t had a chance to perform live yet, but she has heard students and fellow staff members perform carols as she went about her day. “Even when only one note is played at a time, it sounds beautiful,” she said. “Bells are such a Christmas tradition.”

There are bells in abundance: 47 of them, all strategically arranged at the top of the tower where they have been sounding at special events and holidays since 1956, the year the structure was built. Most of the bells, cast in Belgium, were donated to Norwich by a Dover, Vt., resident, whose mother purchased them after exhibition at the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago.

In addition to being the world’s largest instrument, carillons are among the rarest. And that, said some of Matthew’s students, makes the instrument doubly appealing. Only about 600 exist in the world, with roughly 200 in the United States, most on college campuses. Matthew, who travels from Middlebury to Norwich’s Northfield campus weekly to play and teach, has performed across the United States and Europe, where the carillon first reigned in Belgium and Holland during the 16th century.

Matthew said that Norwich is one of only three military schools in the country with a carillon. He believes its sounds can help relieve tension associated with rigorous training. “I have heard from several Norwich alumni who have said that in rough times the sound of the carillon on Friday afternoons was a source of comfort.”

“[Mr.] Matthew is just great,” said Adams. “He is motivating. ... When a song goes badly, he is just very, very good at encouraging you.”

“He is an awesome instructor who has good disposition, recognizing that I am an absolute beginner,” added Rivers.

Most of Matthew’s students are carillon beginners, although a few, such as physics Prof. Gary Parker, have experience on the piano. Parker says he was drawn to the carillon largely because of its “wonderful sound,” which he believes projects, almost magically, the essence of a small, New England college campus.

“It is important [but not necessary] to have a musical background,” said Matthew during a recent break from a class. He said the piano offers the best segue to the carillon. “Even if all you can play is ‘Three Blind Mice,’ that is helpful,” he said.

However, a genuine interest in learning seems to be enough to qualify for lessons, which are provided free, due to a special fund.

The students take the half-hour lessons each Wednesday at the tower, where they work at the silent practice clavier [keyboard] on the first floor. Occasionally, they head to the third floor to play at the clavier actually connected to the bells. With Matthew at their side, guiding, they rap the batons [keys] with semi-clenched fists, sometimes working the base pedals with their feet.

The glorious sound of bells comes from above.

Some students said the experience of playing has been so rewarding they will hunt for a place to play when they settle down after college or military service. International relations major Jaime Parellada, 22, a senior in the private military college’s Corps of Cadets, said Matthew has offered to help him find a carillon to play in Guatemala, his home country.

Adams said the Nemours Mansion and Gardens, the estate of the duPont Family in Wilmington, Del., near his hometown, has a carillon, and that might be his best opportunity to continue playing after college.

Others say just taking the carillon lessons has been rewarding enough—regardless of whether they ever play again. Playing in Adams Tower is a pressure reliever, even if the results are available for everyone to hear—and impossible to ignore.

“This gives me something to do besides my studies; it’s so different, it’s actually relaxing,” said Brian Lamothe, a senior mechanical engineering student from St. Johnsbury, Vt.

Stage fright?

“When you screw up, no one knows who’s playing,” he said.