Glancing up from her keyboard, Carolyn said, “Well you look strong and athletic which is good, because you’re gonna need all that in a second here.”
“I am?” I asked, “Why’s that?”
A playful smile spread across her face, “Because you’re about to ring the biggest bell in the tower with one finger.”
Perhaps the most famous icon of the Chautauqua Institute is the Miller Bell Tower. Erected in 1911, it plays the Westminster Chimes every 15 minutes and the number of the hour on the hour. Many Chautauquans measure their days by the bells which also ring out 15 minutes of song at 8am, noon, and 6pm daily thanks to chimemaster Carolyn Benton.
In a single day you’re sure to hear classics like “It’s a Small World” or “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and though she plays only hymns for the morning bells, Carolyn takes requests so “Happy Birthday” frequently slides into the lineup.
Carolyn grew up coming to Chautauqua with her family and took over as chimemaster in 2002. 14 bells played by hand is no simple task, and when Carolyn started, well… she was so bad that folks dubbed her “the ding-a-ling”.
Admitting that she’s always lived a little off-key, Carolyn embraced the name and over time has added her own twist on traditional songs as a tribute to having her bell rung when she first took over.
“What folks don’t know is a few keys don’t work and we’ve got a bell or two that’s fallen out of tune”, she explained as I watched her play the evening bells. “But, that’s life. People judge what they don’t know and I’ve learned to accept it.”
I blushed and confessed to Carolyn that lately I’d been thinking the same - wondering why some tunes were off and why things didn’t always sound quite right.
“But the difference, honey, is that you’re here. You were a curious monkey and now you know.”
4… 3… 2… 1… “DONGGGGGGGGGGG”.
With one finger I rang the bell that weighs 3,200lbs. And, it was AWESOME!
Thank you, Carolyn, for letting me chime in and for the reminder to play our own tune regardless of how others may judge the music.