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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

Feb. 13, 2009

Tin-Shi Tam

Associate professor of music and ISU carillonneur Tin-Shi Tam where she does some of her best work: the 12-by-12-foot room at clock level in the campanile. Photo by Bob Elbert.

By whom the bells toll

by Paula Van Brocklin

University carillonneur Tin-Shi Tam may have the most unique job on campus. Each weekday around 11:30 a.m, Tam -- a petite woman with a bubbly personality -- effortlessly ascends the campanile's 79 stairs. She navigates the confined spiral staircase with ease, ducking where necessary to successfully maneuver the narrow passages.

After about five minutes, she reaches her destination -- a 12-by-12-foot room beneath the bell chamber that houses the carillon console.

Tam takes a moment to catch her breath and warm her hands (it's cold this time of year in a stone tower) before switching on the high-tech gadgets necessary for the live web casts of her noon carillon concerts. She takes her place at the keyboard and, 10 minutes before noon, begins to make the bells of Iowa State sing.

The four faces of the campanile's clock and a camera mounted on the ceiling are the audience Tam sees. She hears no applause. She receives no standing ovations. But after 15 years, anonymity is still a bonus.

In the beginning

A native of Hong Kong, Tam came to the United States in 1991 for graduate studies in organ performance and church music at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She remembers browsing through the university calendar, noticing an announcement for a carillon concert in the university's clock tower. Curious by nature, she asked her music professor about it because she didn't understand how a concert could be in the tower. His reply?

"Just stay over there at the tower and you will find out what it is."

She did, and it was love at first sound.

"It was marvelous," Tam said. "I started to hear the bell sound and I thought, 'This is a carillon? It's music, it's not just bells ringing.'"

After the concert, Tam hiked up the tower to check it out. Shortly thereafter she started taking lessons -- just for fun. Three years later, Iowa State hired her as its fifth carillonneur.

"It's still a thrill to me today, especially when you go and visit different instruments," she said. "The way you get to the tower is the first part of the experience. Then when you get to the instrument, you get to know it and get to hear the different types of bells and the different settings. It's just fascinating."

Tam said each carillon has its own personality, primarily due to weather conditions. Temperature, humidity and air pressure all affect the bells' sound.

"It's an outdoor instrument," Tam said. "The instrument is part of the environment. Here at Iowa State, sometimes a car drives by or a bird crows, or the trains can be part of the performance. It's something you cannot control. But it's fun."

Mechanics of a carillon

A carillon looks somewhat like an organ except its keys are long wooden batons, almost like broom handles. And, there are only as many keys as there are bells (ISU's keyboard has 50 keys). The keys are connected to cables, which control the bronze bells' clappers. When the key is pressed, the clapper strikes the bell creating a tone. Iowa State's bells range from nine to 5,484 pounds.

"It's more of a percussion instrument because the clappers are actually striking the bells," Tam said. "It's like an organ that has a manual and a pedal keyboard, but an organ is more like a wind instrument because it's got to have wind blow through the pipes."

Tam strikes the carillon's keys vertically with her pinky fingers, following through with a quick flick of the wrist.

"My hands are never actually hitting with a fist. It may look like I'm pounding on the key, but it's just an illusion because I'm playing so fast," Tam said.

Resistance is greater on the left side of the keyboard because those keys are connected to the heaviest bells. A pedal board, played with the feet, also connects to these keys.

Tam rehearses on a practice console in Music Hall. It's a duplicate of the carillon except that hammers strike tuned metal bars instead of clappers on bells. Even with lots of practice, performing on the carillon feels like a new experience.

"It is a little bit of an adjustment transferring from the practice keyboard to this one," Tam said. "You're still practicing, in a way, when you come up [to the carillon] because you need to get adjusted to the sound and the weight of the keys."

All in a day's work

Fifty percent of Tam's university position is dedicated to the carillon -- giving performances, teaching lessons, organizing festivals and selecting guest performers. She spends the rest of her time teaching an online music appreciation class to non-music majors.

The bulk of her workload, however, revolves around the mid-day carillon concerts. Tam shakes things up a bit each Friday, playing special requests such as "MMMBop" or "Sweet Home Alabama."

She often gets involved in matchmaking schemes as well. Since coming to Iowa State in 1994, Tam estimates she has assisted in the marriage proposals of at least 20 couples. She plays the carillon upstairs while the couple becomes engaged at the base of the campanile. What does she play for such an event?

"Usually it's something they can recognize," she said. "Sometimes they have a request, like 'their' song."

The bells of Iowa State

Tam didn't know much about Iowa State and the campanile's tradition when she first visited campus in 1994. But it didn't take long to become acquainted with the passion Iowa Staters have for the campanile and its carillon.

"What really struck me was the tradition and the history, and how the tradition of the bells of Iowa State is so strong," Tam said. "I'm proud to be a part of it."


"It's more of a percussion instrument because the clappers are actually striking the bells."

Tin-Shi Tam