Carilloneur gives ringing endorsement to her work

laurel buckwalter

It’s that time of year when the sound of bells are heard on nearly every street corner — or at least in every mall! But in Alfred, the sound of bells is not just a seasonal melody. The Davis Memorial Carillon at Alfred University is played several times a week year-round.

Similar to the unofficial mailman’s mantra … “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night …” keeps the bells from ringing across the Alfred valley, although “occasionally” in winter “things will freeze up and you can’t get the door open … and the wires to the bells have frozen so the batons won’t move, ” said Laurel Buckwalter ’89, the University’s third official carilloneur. She served as a substitute player for Joanne Droppers, AU’s second carilloneur from 1974-94, and was appointed to the lead role upon Droppers’ retirement.

Laurel recalls that it was in the late 1980s when she first was asked to substitute for Droppers whenever she needed time off. The Buckwalters had moved from Andover to Alfred in 1983. Laurel fondly recalls times during the winter months when her five children would be sledding down the slope below the carillon as she performed. However, none of them has learned to play — yet. On the other hand, husband John, a professor at Alfred State, has filled in two or three times over the years. “If I’m very desperate he will go up and play something simple,” says Laurel.

It was also John who “ordered me the license plate AU Bells which many people remark on. It makes the car easily identifiable by me as well as other folks.”

So what’s it like to play a carillon?

It’s similar to playing an organ in that there are pedals, but physically it’s very different,” explains Laurel. “Having an organ background helped me,” she says, but you use “bigger motions and you don’t use your fingers, you use your fists.” And coordinating hands and feet is “complicated.”

“I really enjoy it. It’s a special experience.” Laurel relishes the entire process from climbing the stairs to choosing the music, to looking out over the campus and surrounding hillsides.

Although the carillon music is a familiar background presence in Alfred, Laurel notes that she often finds “people are somewhat surprised that there is somebody at the top” of the bell tower playing live. She encourages visitors to climb up the 69 steps to see the action anytime she is in the tower.

Laurel has also had a number of students learn to play the carillon while on campus. Once they become skilled enough they play recitals and serve as substitutes. Over the years many students have found the carillon to be a perfect hideaway, particularly on Saturday afternoons. She’s even had students come up and do homework while she’s playing!

Laurel puts a lot of thought into the music and selects pieces reflective of the season, or the type of day it might be. “I like to play a wide variety of things;” her repertoire even includes music from the Harry Potter films. Many carillon pieces are traded among carilloneurs, says Laurel, who is a carilloneur member of the Guild of North America, a select group of 153 of which only 43 are women.

A graduate of Houghton College with a major in music, Laurel earned a master of science degree in education from AU. In addition to her carillon and music specialist duties, she is often the piano accompanist for recitalist and choral groups on campus and throughout the area.

Laurel has also been asked to perform on a number of carillons. She’s been a recitalist in San Antonio, TX; Mercersburg, PA; Erie, PA; Frederick, MD; the Oratory of St. Joseph’s, Montreal; Norwich University, VT; Middlebury College, VT; University of Rochester, NY; Albany, NY; The University of Toronto and the Metropolitan Church of Toronto, Canada; University of Chicago, IL; Botanic Gardens I Chicago; the Millennium Carillon, Naperville, IL; and the International Carillon Festival in Springfield, IL.

It’s not an easy task to play on other carillons, says Laurel. Each has its challenges, she says. “It’s such a unique instrument, one of the unfortunate facts is they are not very standardized. The keyboards are so varied it requires significant getting used to. The feeling, the weight, the layout can be very different.”

In addition to her carilloneur duties, Laurel has been a mainstay in the Performing Arts Division. She first was piano accompanist for Paul and Betty Giles’ voice recitals and directed the AU chorus for seven and a half years. She currently teaches piano class and private piano and carillon lessons and serves as accompanist for many concerts and recitals.

The carillon can be heard during the academic calendar on Monday, Wednesday, and Fridays from 12:30-12:45 p.m. and most Saturdays of the year (except August and during the winter holiday break) from 4-5 p.m. During bitter cold weather the carillon is not played.






4 responses to “Carilloneur gives ringing endorsement to her work”

  1. Susan Carter Tubbs Says:
    I enjoyed the article.I played the Alfred carillon in 1970 and '71. I was a junior transfer student and by no stretch of the imagination could have been considered a Carilloneur! I did have a modest musical background. I could play the piano, organ, and French horn, and sang a respectable alto most of my life. Playing simple pieces on the carillon was a satisfying experience for me. Looking out over the valley from the top of the tower as the seasons changed is a particularly warm memory. One of these days I'll go on one of my personal field trips (I live in Rochester) and take in a summer concert.
  2. Tom Talbot Says:
    I was a music major at AU from 1965-1969. There were about 10 of us majors during that time and we were expected to take turns playing the carillon; 15 minutes each weekday evening and 1/2 hour on Sunday afternoons. Some of my friends use to joke that the Alma Mater was actually set to the tune of "Home on the Range." So at one of my Sunday concerts I ended with "Home on the Range" instead of the Alma Mater. If anyone in the valley noticed it, I never heard about it.
  3. Judi Says:
    Dear Laurel,

    You must be too good. Make a few more mistakes, and they won't be so surprised to find out that there's a real person up there...they might even figure it out for themselves. Ha Ha!! Love you...Judi
  4. Marilyn Rozelle Says:
    We lived at 109 N. Main St. when my husband was in graduate school there. We were so surprised on a New Year's Eve in 1960 to hear the bells ringing at midnight, the music coming across the snow on a crisp, cold night. We went to the open window and breathed in the cold air and were so at peace as we listened. It is one of the many beautiful memories we have of our three years in Alfred.

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