John Gouwens, an organist and carillonneur, will perform a free bell tower show in Shafer Tower Saturday for Family Weekend. After the performance, he will take small groups on tours of the bell tower. John Gouwens // Photo Provided
Carillon brings musical charm to Shafer Tower
John Gouwens isn't a typical musician.
As a carillonneur — someone who performs on bells in churches or towers — his musical talents aren't as traditional as most others.
"A lot of people got into this profession by accident," Gouwens said. "But not me."
From a young age, Gouwens said he was enticed by the musical capabilities of church organs while growing up in Fort Wayne. Oddly, he was also an avid clock collector, and he found the idea of bell towers to be "a beautiful combination."
"I, myself, have had quite an interesting mix of interests," Gouwens said. "My family and I used to go on lots of trips when I was younger, and I found these big, grand carillons to be so fascinating, and that's when the idea sparked that I could play those."
Gouwens began his carillon studies at Indiana University, playing his first recital on the Metz Carillon in 1977. The bells, he said, were unlike any other instrument he could get his hands on, and he was committed to anything he could do to in order to get better at the musical art.
"I was dedicated to the music and to the art of the instrument," he said. "I went and studied where I felt I could get the most training. I had my passion set on becoming a carillonneur."
After graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in organ performance, Gouwens began looking for jobs and eventually made his way to The Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana. He started volunteering with the bell tower there, hoping his efforts would land him a permanent position at the school.
"I fell in love with the carillon there," Gouwens said. "It has a unique sound, and it was really a great place to start professionally."
His work was well received, and Gouwens joined the faculty of The Culver Academies in the fall of 1980. He began serving as organist and carillonneur of The Academies, playing both instruments for Sunday religious services, as well as presenting recitals on both instruments. He also began teaching piano students and teaching carillon and organ students on occasion. Gouwens continues to work at The Academies today, and this marks his 36th year there as faculty.
In fall 2002, he was also appointed visiting lecturer in carillon at Ball State University, performing the instrument's first recital that same year.
Ball State's Shafer Tower, which includes a 150-foot-tall free-standing bell tower with a carillon and chiming clock, sits in the middle of the campus and is one of Gouwens' favorites, he said.
The carillon tower houses 48 custom-made bells covering four octaves, making it an instrument capable of playing most historic and contemporary carillon music. It's played by striking a keyboard – the stick-like keys called batons – with the fists and by pressing the keys of a pedal keyboard with the feet. The keys mechanically activate levers and wires that connect to metal clappers that strike the inside of the bells, allowing the carillonneur to vary the intensity of the note according to the force applied to the key, Gouwens said.
"You don't get a good idea of what's happening up there," Gouwens said. "It's challenging to know what the sound is going to be like when it comes out. Is the melody good? How loud is it? I have to make sure I'm asking myself these things while playing and hope that my work is bringing out the right stuff."
Gouwens is responsible for assisting with the upkeep at Shafer Tower, but on the side, he also spends time arranging musical pieces to perform on the carillon.
"Writing music for the instrument also gives me the ability and the opportunity to explore other aspects [of the carillon]," he said. "There's so much to think about and consider – I think putting the pieces together makes me more well-rounded with the bells."
For most of his performances around the state, Gouwens arranges a set of four pieces. In an attempt to get varying sounds from each carillon he plays, Gouwens said he chooses pieces that allow each instrument to showcase what it's best at — Shafer Tower's being its strong, higher-pitched tones.
"It's always fun seeing how the sound is going to translate from one carillon to another," Gouwens said. "Shafer Tower is very tall, and it's not very soft. But every instrument is different, even with these carillons. It makes me go off of instinct when playing them a lot, which makes it all the more fun, I think."
Although Ball State has a fully-functioning carillon, musicians only play the instrument on special occasions or for concerts. At all other times, the bells are programmed by computer to play the Westminster Quarters to announce the time between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Gouwens will perform a free bell tower show Sept. 17 at 11 a.m. as a part of Family Weekend. After the performance, he will also take small groups on exclusive tours to the top of the bell tower.
"It's so much fun," Gouwens said. "For students and families or anyone else who thinks it might be interesting, it would be a great experience. If not, that's okay – I'll make sure you'll hear the sounds of the bells around the campus, anyway."