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Behind the bells: Shadinger leads student learning opportunity

It’s 10 a.m.

Belmont’s campus is filled with students discussing their classes and weekend plans as they head to convocations. Meanwhile, the Bell Tower rings 10 times, alerting them to rush to their destinations.

As the campus clears and the tenth ring resounds, music from the Bell Tower begins to fill the air.

Some Belmont students notice the Bell Tower’s music, but many do not know the man who makes it.

That man is Dr. Richard Shadinger, who teaches music history and piano and has been at Belmont since 1974.

Sometimes, he plays the bells periodically for his own enjoyment, but he also puts on concerts, usually in early fall and on Christmas Eve.

But he is not the only one responsible for the Bell Tower’s music. Every semester, he offers a Belmont student the opportunity to learn how to play the 43-bell carillon.

“Belmont is a very musical school,” Shadinger said. “So just to have one more element of music playing on campus is kind of significant.”

The present carillon was installed in 1986, but at that time it only had 23 bells.

Shadinger learned how to play them once they arrived from the Netherlands and started giving private lessons a few years ago, after the first teacher, Beverly Buchanan, retired.

“It’s a rare thing,” Shadinger said. “So not many students will take advantage of it. But almost every semester, I’ll have one student who takes the lesson.”

Last semester, Daniel Weatherby, a spring Belmont graduate from Stone Mountain, Ga., learned how to play the giant musical instrument in the center of Belmont’s campus.

He heard the bells playing one day while sitting in the quad and thought what a blessing it would be to be able to play them, he said.

Weatherby then emailed Shadinger a two-paragraph request to take the carillon lesson. And as soon as he got the OK, Weatherby dropped the piano lesson he was signed up for and replaced it with the carillon lesson.

He started in January on the third floor of the tower, where the practice carillon is located.

Inside the practice room, the brick walls are painted yellow with pictures of carillons from around the world hanging on them. And the practice carillon sits in the center of the room.

Both the practice and performance carillon look very similar to a piano, except instead of black and white keys, they have wooden rods. And instead of being played with fingers, they are played with fists and feet.

“The reason we use our hands is that the wires upstairs will be pulling the clapper of the bell which is quite heavy,” Shadinger said. “Some of them weigh 30 or 40 pounds, so you couldn’t push it with your fingers.”

After practicing everyday for about two weeks, it was time for Weatherby to play the real carillon on the fourth floor of the tower.

“I can’t remember the last time I felt that much anxiety,” Weatherby said. “Subjecting people to my musicality was a real tough thing to deal with.”

He remembers very vividly what it was like to enter the yellow room on the fourth floor. Much like the practice room, it has shelves with sheet music and a U.S. map behind the instrument with pins pushed into the cities where other carillons can be found.

When Weatherby walked in the room, he first took the sheet covering the carillon off and then climbed another set of stairs to open the hatch, revealing the 43 bronze bells. Next, he took his seat on the adjustable bench in front of the wooden rods attached to wires that run up through the ceiling to the bells.

And then he began to play the first song he learned, “Duet.”

He said his anxiety faded as time went on, due partially to Shadinger’s calming presence.

“Dr. Shadinger is just a great mentor and encourager as far as music is concerned,” Weatherby said.

During the spring semester, Weatherby practiced in the Bell Tower four to five days out of the week. After climbing the 90 stairs to the carillon and putting on jazz shoes to better feel the foot pedals, he would then start practicing, often playing to an unsuspecting audience.

“It’s like practicing in a concert hall with people sitting there while you are learning the music,” Shadinger said.

The first weekend Weatherby came to practice he had a much bigger audience than he anticipated. It happened to be a Preview Day.

“The last thing I wanted to do was play the University’s brand poorly in front of 1,000 potential incoming students,” he said with a big smile.

Since the bells ring everyday, his normal student audience did not seem to pay close attention to his practicing.

“I never really notice the bells much,” said Megan Neumann, a junior math major. “I have heard songs being played on the bells before, but I usually tune them out.”

Through his lessons, Weatherby has learned to listen more carefully to things that have become so normalized, especially the bells.

“It has kind of taught me how to pay attention to things that are as loud as a 1,700-pound bell and as quiet as the sound of the wind,” he said.

-Ashley Heyen 

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