Carillon playing takes coordination

September 17, 1997


Staff Writer, Chambersburg

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - It's carillon bells, not barbells, that give James Smith his total body workout.

Smith, Mercersburg Academy's music director, organist and carillonneur, can work up a sweat in no time after climbing the 70 steep, winding steps into the chapel's Barker Tower where the carillon sits just below a cluster of 49 bells of various sizes - the largest weighing 31/2 tons - that hang in the 150-foot stone spire.

But the real test in coordination and stamina presents itself at the seat of the odd-looking percussion instrument, from which protrudes two rows of wooden levers, or batons, that act as the keyboard; two rows of foot pedals; and a series of cables that connect the keyboard to the bells above.

"The keys are laid out the same as an organ and you have to coordinate your hands and feet. But that's the only similarity," Smith said, who started out as the academy's choir master and then organist 32 years ago.


Yet for all the work Smith puts into it, sliding back and forth on the wooden bench as his hands and feet move in all directions, the result is a sound that is meant to be heard by everyone as the chiming bells reverberate from the spire out onto the campus and surrounding community.

Smith took on the job as the academy's carillonneur after the bells had been silent for a few years following the 1981 retirement of Bryan Barker, carillon player for more than 50 years.

Smith took lessons at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and began playing at the academy in 1983.

Though he describes the learning process as "slow going," Smith's talent has won him invitations to play to national audiences, most recently during a two-hour concert Saturday at the cathedral at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

"I'm really humbled by the invitation. I'm really an amateur at this," Smith said.

Though he makes playing the carillon look easy, Smith admits to playing too slowly some melodies that are meant to be fast-paced, and says some of the music is just plain hard.

"There are two other parts to that song I'd like to play but they're very difficult and I just don't have the time to practice," Smith said, as he shuffled a stack of sheet music in between selections during a recital on Sunday afternoon.

But since the academy installed six new bells last winter, making it a four-octave carillon that qualifies it as one of 100 concert carillons in the United States, Smith has been able to increase his musical selections.

"In the old days, I couldn't do that piece. Now I can go the whole way up with the new bells," Smith said.

Visitors are welcome to watch Smith play, though he insists he needs total quiet because he becomes easily distracted by background noise.

Smith's carillon recital was the first in a series to be held this fall by a variety of carillonneurs. The recitals, which last about an hour, are free and open to the public.

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