Spring came warmly to the University of Montana campus Tuesday when Barbara Ballas made her way into the belfry rising over Main Hall.
Up the flight of 73 steps and through a hatch of ladybugs, she found the instrument inscribed with the J.J. Verdin Co. logo, its wires rising through the wooden rafters to the clackers above.
“The first thing I’m going to play is an F minor,” said Ballas, taking her seat at the instrument. “The F minor works particularly well with the bells because of the tuning.”
Ballas is the latest musician appointed to the post of carilloneur – roughly translated as “the player of the bells.” She assumed the reins on a temporary basis from Nancy Cooper, whose tenure reaches back to 1992, or 21 graduating classes.
For Ballas, the move is something of a dream come true, and literally so. A UM graduate, she often heard the bells chime as a music student in the 1970s, though she couldn’t know then that her day as a carilloneur would come.
“It was something always in the back of my mind,” she said. “I had just turned 60 when this opportunity came along, and it was time to have some fun.”
Her opportunity to play arrived last year when Cooper suffered a hand injury that prevented her from striking the keys, which activate the wires, which move the clackers that ring the bells.
Ballas inquired about the role and Cooper agreed to give her a try. After three weeks of practice, Ballas made her solo debut, but not without some trepidation.
“When you play what looks like a middle C, it actually sounds a fourth higher,” Ballas said. “There’s all kinds of clacking and clattering in the tower. I was playing and it was transposing to another key. It took some getting used to, and it wasn’t at all what I expected.”
As the bells struck noon that first day, Ballas tempered her anxiety and noted the season. It was coming on Christmas, a perfect time of year for such melodies as “Let It Snow” and “Winter Wonderland.”
“That’s the fun part of this,” Ballas said. “You can map the holidays. I volunteered for First Night and played for New Year’s Eve. People came out at midnight and were waiting for the midnight peel of the bells. I got to play a 15-minute concert.”
Months have since passed and those nerves have subsided. Ballas now goes about the task like a pro, striking the keys and working the wooden peddles with her feet, never missing a beat.
On Tuesday, it was “Themes and Variations in F Minor” and “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” which Ballas described as an “old English air.” The bells strike deeply and resonate purely across a wide spectrum of sound.
“Choosing the music is fun,” she said. “When we had all those terrible forest fires last year, I played ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.’ ”
Far below the belfry, students crossed the Oval, moving from class to class under the dawning of spring. The ladybugs danced against the window panes and the bricks are etched with the names of those who’ve made this climb into the tower.
With her family now raised and life setting into its smooth rhythm, Ballas can think of few things she’d rather do than greet the noon hour each day with music.
As a trained musician, filling in as UM’s carilloneur was a natural move, and one she plans to perfect. She’ll attend the National Carillon Concert in June and if time permits, she’ll take lessons in Spokane.
“It’s endlessly challenging and a great opportunity for me,” she said. “It’s something I find really satisfying, and people get a lot of enjoyment from the music.”