It’s not uncommon to hear the carillon bells of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel ring on the campus of the University of Chicago.
What is uncommon is hearing them play “Jingle Bells,” “Frosty the Snowman” and “Carol of the Bells.”
“We do play the bells pretty regularly, but we have special themed events and this is one of those,” said Simone Brown, one of five U. of C. seniors who is scheduled to play at a free concert at 5 p.m. Thursday at the chapel, 5850 S. Woodlawn Ave.
Carillon instructor Joey Brink also will be performing in the annual holiday-themed concert dubbed Sleigh Bells.
Brown, a public policy major from Tucson, Ariz., feels lucky to play the massive carillon.
“It is like playing piano in that it’s a very specialized skill,” Brown said. “It’s such a reward just getting to play the bells. It’s like my soul food.”
Not many instruments require you to climb 271 steps up a very narrow staircase, nearly 200 feet above the gothic chapel, the tallest building on campus.
With its 72 bells, the carillon is the second largest in the nation, behind the carillon at Riverside Church in New York City.
“The bells have been in the tower continuously since they were installed in 1932, except when a few of them were removed for renovation in the early 2000s,” Brown said. “Part of the reason for that is that it’s massive. All together, the bells weigh about a hundred tons.”
Climbing to the top usually takes 10 to 15 minutes, passing through very tight spaces and making sure not to bang your head on low beams and pipes.
“I always encourage people to look at the bricks. Some are stamped with a year on them. Some are form 1919 or 1912. There are a lot of bricks in this building. It’s neat to see a masonry stamp on them,” said Eden Sabala, the university’s special events manager.
Near the top you pass the largest of the 72 bells, nicknamed “Big Laura,” after the mother of university founder and benefactor John D. Rockefeller. The carillon is dedicated to her. At 37,000 pounds, it’s considered one of the largest tuned carillon bells in the world, according to the U. of C.
Although the chapel’s brick facade covers the bells, they’re exposed to the cold, heat, rain and snow.
But in the playing cabin near the top, it’s temperature-controlled with some of the comforts of home (minus a restroom), and advanced digital technology for recording.
Carillon bells are played with pedals and a keyboard of wooden batons that musicians punch because they are so large.
After graduation next summer, Brown hopes she can continue playing a carillon somewhere.
“Wherever I’m living, maybe I can play part-time gigs there and still have bells in my life,” she said.