The view is great from the top of Belmont’s 105-foot tall bell tower, but few people have that vantage point. The tower is a central point of campus, but many students don’t know what’s at the top: 100 steps, 43 bells, three-and-one-half octaves, two hands, and one man.
That man is Dr. Richard Shadinger, professor of music at Belmont. On the fifth floor of the bell tower, he plays the carillon, and students often hear the powerful sound as they are walking to class.
“I heard about a carillon player who started playing Lady Gaga music on a carillon,” Shadinger said. “I haven’t done anything quite like that.”
Even though Shadinger hasn’t played the songs of the pop star, his music adds to the well-known music atmosphere of the university.
A carillon is an instrument, similar to a piano or an organ, with a wooden keyboard and pedals and attached to a set of wires. The wires are connected to a series of clappers striking different-sized bells to produce melodious combinations.
Several times a week, Shadinger makes his way up the steep, original stairs of the 168-year-old bell tower. Guarded by an intricate steel railing, he pulls out the bench and takes a seat in front of the old, familiar keyboard.
As his loose fists press down on the wooden knobs, a series of chords running up the backside of the carillon begin to twitch in sync with each note heard from the rafters.
There are fewer than 20 carillons in the United States. Two of them are in Nashville, one at Belmont and the other a few blocks away.
“Lipscomb has one down there, and of course ours is bigger than theirs is,” Shadinger said. “We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
At Belmont, the instrument that drives the bells sits protected under an old brown cloth in the playing room, 80 steps above campus, and 20 steps below the bells. Beyond the carillon is a map of the United States with a few pushpins that show where carillons are located.
“It’s a rather expensive instrument to have, not just to have the bells but to have a tower to put them in,” Shadinger said.
Even churches and schools that have a tower can’t necessarily have a carillon. The bells are manufactured in Europe and a carillon can cost anywhere from $200,000 to $500,000.
“There are quite a few carillons in Europe. That’s where the whole tradition started several hundred years ago,” Shadinger said.
In Holland, Belgium and France, it’s common to find villages with carillons.
“They used to have bell ringers who would just sit up in the tower most of the day to ring the hour and give signals to the community,” he said.
As ways were found to play more than one bell at a time with a keyboard, the idea came about that these bells could be used to make music. 2011 marks the 400-year anniversary of carillons being used in the Netherlands as more than just practical service alarms.
Today, when Belmont’s Dutch-made carillon and its Westminster chimes strike on the hour between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m., set off by an automatic device, these bells serve that original purpose.
The chimes typically are an indication of whether students have made it to class on time or are running late, Shadinger said.
“It adds an interesting atmosphere to the campus when you hear it,” he said.
It’s also a festive thing to have for festive occasions. Shadinger plays concerts for Christmas at Belmont, Christmas Eve, the President’s Concert, before and after commencement ceremonies, and an occasional fall and spring concert.
Typically on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays during the convocation hour and sometimes afternoons or weekends, Shadinger will come down from his office in the Wilson Music Building to play the carillon. From classical to children’s’ music, he has a wide variety of material to pick from.
In the practice room on the third level of the tower, a shelf is filled with binders that are covered in old labels and include patriotic songs and hymns, others for spring and Lent and Christmas, and Irish and Scottish tunes.
No matter the season, Shadinger can always find an occasion to put on a campus concert.
The 43-bell carillon could be considered one of Belmont’s best-kept secrets. But Shadinger has an open-door policy.
“When I play, I usually leave the door unlocked in case someone is curious about what’s up here,” Shadinger said.