Lisa Lonie unlocks a small wooden door at the base of the Gothic-style tower to reveal a rising circular stairwell.

Lonie, 53, is a thin and fit woman in her early 50s, yet as she puts her foot to the first step leading up the lighthouse-like passageway she presses her hand against the well’s brick walls and moves slowly. There’s a reason.

As the door closes behind us, we’re suddenly in gray twilight, and the humid air seems to become warmer, the space tighter. Our compass is the edge of a soft glow of sunlight pouring down from a small, hidden station window.

Lonie leads us up more and more steps — 120 or so — until we pass through a door and onto one of the tower’s floors. To the left are vaulted wall openings that provide a bird’s eye view of a complex of Gothic-styled buildings that make up Princeton University’s Graduate College. Moving air rushes through. On the right is the base of the belfry with rows of thick bells — some large enough to cover several people. Although quiet, they say we are nearing our destination.

Lonie averts her eyes to the right as she ascends a portion of a flight of metal steps along the wall, the stops with her back to the openings, points to one particular bell, and announces its title: the Bourdon — or the lowest sounding bell. The name is Middle English and translates as “drone,” as in the low droning of a bagpipe.

She continues pointing to other bells and announcing their place of origin — England, France, the Netherlands.

Now Lonie scrambles higher and higher until she stands before a small, plain box-like room, quickly unlocks the door, and enters with one focus: to create a type of ancient magic for a 21st-century world.

As Princeton University’s official carillon player (or carillonneur), it is something she does regularly in Cleveland Tower, standing tall amidst architect Ralph Adams Cram’s Collegiate Gothic buildings.

A carillon is an instrument that uses a set of chromatically tuned tower bells to play music. They were developed in the 1500s in Holland, the Netherlands, and northern France. The name comes from “quarrengon,” old French for “peal of four bells.” The American pronunciation is similar to the name “Carolyn.”

They’re the largest musical instruments in the world, and this one is the fifth largest in the United States — number one is in the Kirk in the Hills Presbyterian Church in Bloomfield, Michigan, outside Detroit.

While the Princeton carillon is played throughout the year, it is about to distinguish itself when it once again becomes the center of one of New Jersey’s most unusual annual music series: “Tuning the Sky” — the weekly Sunday summer performances by international carillon players. It begins on July 3 at 1 p.m.

There is more to say about the series that has been going on for 24 years, but right now Lonie is getting comfortable at the wooden carillon console to start her regular 1 p.m. Sunday session.

Like clockwork she starts dropping loose fists on batons (or levers) and pounds feet on pedals to activate cable lines and clappers in pitched bells — and, as she tells me later, will score up the equivalent of 20,000 steps on a Fitbit. But right now, the air around the small prefabricated cabin is erupting with the exuberance of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” The sound goes over the campus and can reach a mile in all directions.

The large bells below us thunder deep notes. Over us — in the area called the transmission — racks of suspended bells of various sizes sing sharp and bright. It’s like a mixture of sounds from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and a Hallmark Christmas broadcast. The overtones of both make the room vibrate — and the ears ring.

“What we have here is 67 bells,” she says as she concludes her first piece. “A carillon has 23 bells or more. Anything below is a chime.”

Since she is there to perform and needs to concentrate on the music propped up on a rack and held by wire, she measures out her explanation of how the instrument came to be — and how this one came to Princeton — between pieces.

“(Carillons) grew out of the medieval church as a way to communicate,” Lonie says, adding that the Netherlands region was an important center, with the first carillon appearing in Flanders in the early 1500s.

Lonie says while early bronze bells tended to be uneven, makers refined casting techniques to create higher quality products. That, in turn, spurred demand and competition among bell makers, who kept their approaches secret.

“Tuning techniques were highly regarded,” says Lonie. “And once the bells are cast and tuned in the foundry they stay in tune for years and years” — so much so Lonie says ancient European bells could accommodate Lonie ringing out the theme music to the popular “Games of Thrones” television show during a recent tour.

While Lonie hits a contemporary note, she is talking about a time when carillons were the equivalent of the town’s main source of public music — something akin to a community radio that had a single station. Since then musical tastes and innovations changed listening opportunities and habits. World events also took their toll on bell playing. “A lot of (European) bell foundries went out of business right after the Second World War,” Lonie says. That’s when demand for bells dropped and companies saw metal go to armaments — or destroyed. One casualty was the Gillet & Johnson Company, the English foundry that created Princeton’s original bells.

Despite time and conflicts, the instrument has endured. “The U.S. now casts carillon bells in Ohio (the Verdin Company in Cincinnati). And there are about 180 carillons in the U.S. and Canada,” says Lonie. Included in the count are ones ready to play in Morristown, Rumson, and Plainfield, New Jersey.

Compared to the Old World, the numbers suggest a start-up. “A small country like the Netherlands has 290,” says Lonie, and the Guild of Carrilonneurs in North America estimates about 630 worldwide.

It’s time for another selection. This time Joey Cotruvo, a Princeton alumnus back for a visit, takes the console, and performs a transcription of a classical work. Like many of the Princeton students who get involved taking carillon lessons from Lonie, Cotruvo doesn’t study music. He is involved with post-graduate work in chemistry at Berkeley.

Lonie says many students use the carillon as an alternative to regular study. And practicing for this very public instrument is done in private. “We have a replication (of the carillon) so students and I can practice without anyone hearing us. We come up here when we’re finished.” It’s in the basement of one of the Graduate School buildings, right around the corner from the room with washing machines and dryers, she says.

Obviously a practice room is a good thing for both listeners and performers. “This instrument gives a lot of dynamic control,” she says. “You can get a whisper or a forte, but there is no damper power (to stop or mask the note), so when you make a mistake it goes out, and you go, ‘Ah man!’”

She then adds that there are three works that one cannot mess up: the National Anthem, “Silent Night,” and, of course, the university’s anthem, “Old Nassau.”

On the history of the Princeton carillon, Lonie echoes the words on the dedication plaque by the tower entrance: “The class of 1892 presents the carillon in this tower to Princeton University with love and gratitude and the hope that its bells may ever inspire coming generations of Princeton men to maintain the traditions of their alma mater in the service of god and of their country.”

The class wanted to give the university a gift “at once noble yet different from all other gifts.” It was initiated by the class during its 35th reunion. The idea came from one of the members who recalled encountering the instrument in Europe and the effect it had on him.

Regarding the plaque’s “men” reference and Princeton’s all-male student body up until 1969, Lonie smiles and says she is proud to be the university’s first female carillonneur, assuming the position in 2012.

Then providing a few fun facts, Lonie says the concert pitched bells were originally designed for Holder Hall — at the corner of Nassau Street and University Place — “but the fit wasn’t proper, so they were installed in Cleveland,” the tower that contains a monument to the former Princeton resident who twice served as president of the United States. “It’s like a sacred space,” she says of the internal memorial chamber. Then back on topic, she adds, “The bells were installed by opening the roof.”

The instrument originally had 35 bells, but over the years there were additions of those English, Dutch, and French bells. The bigger the instrument, the bigger the donations, she says.

To get a sense of cost, use Lonie’s formula of $25 per pound of bell. With Princeton bells weighing between 12,889 and 14 pounds, it is easy to see how the instrument can fluctuate in size.

“It’s a beautiful instrument and well maintained off an endowment,” she says.

But it wasn’t always so. “In the late 1980s the carillon was played sporadically and was in disrepair. Up until the renovations the instrument was unplayable.”

The change came with the 1988 inauguration of Princeton University president Harold Shapiro. He had previously been president of the University of Michigan, home to another carillon. “He came knowing about the carillon. Someone called and said that it needed to be repaired. It took a few years to raise the money.”

Now “it’s a working machine,” she says. “It doesn’t need tuning but it needs a lot of care. The most common problems are in the transmission — grease and dirt.” The endowment covers those costs.

Lonie’s path to the top of the tower has a history of its own. She grew up in Southampton, Bucks County. The daughter of a secretary mother and electrical engineer father came to music in a very traditional way: her piano-playing mother arranged lessons. When she was 14 she was in a hand bell choir at her church. Her instructor was Frank Law, carillonneur at the Washington Memorial National Carillon in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and an instructor. He was also an instructor to many of the nation’s carillonneurs.

Lonie says she was 14 when she discovered the instrument and its “commanding” power through Law and announced to her parents her desire to study it. They responded by saying, “Let’s go find you lessons” and then drove her to weekly classes in Valley Forge and elsewhere. “They were really proactive in my learning the instrument,” she says.

Between then and now, Lonie continued her studies, became a noted circuit performer, and served as a board member and juror for the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America (GCNA) — an organization that “supports the development of proficient carillonneurs and encourages the building of new carillons, the improvement of existing installations, and the composition and distribution of carillon music.”

In addition to her part-time duties at Princeton, the mother of two sons and a daughter (non-musicians) — and grandmother of four — is also the part-time carillonneur at St. Thomas’ Church in Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania, and the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, home of North America’s oldest carillon, built in 1882. She also tours and teaches.

A graduate of Pennsylvania State University, where she studied German and economics, Lonie’s “day gig” is as executive assistant to the president of Salus University. She lives in Bluebell, Pennsylvania, 50 miles from Princeton, with her husband, Paul, who owns a civil engineering company.

Lonie says she learned about the Princeton opening from two sources: the GCNA’s postings and through the former carillonneur Robin Austin, who retired in 2012. The application process involved a face to face interview with Princeton’s choral director, Penna Rose, and dean of chapel, Alison Boden, who, says Lonie, came from the University of Chicago, home of the second largest carillon in North America. “She knew about the instrument and its public relations element — music for the community.”

There was also something else. “When I played a summer concert in 2012 someone was listening, so it was like an audition without me knowing about it. I’m glad I didn’t know,” she says.

Lonie says she didn’t know how many musicians she competed against for the position, but she knows that full-time positions are very competitive. “In North America and Canada there are only five full-time positions,” mainly at universities where the carillonneur will perform daily, teach, arrange music, and participate in school and community functions.

While the GCNA provides certification and sets standards, it is not a union and doesn’t set fee scales, unlike the organist guild. “It’s all performance based,” says Lonie. “When you go on tour, you have a reasonable expectation (of compensation), but as far as salaries, that is all with whomever employs you.”

But there are some established precedents that serve as recommendations. The Princeton tower is part of the Philadelphia circuit where performers can expect between $400 and $500 per performance, sometimes with overnight accommodations. Princeton pays $475 per performance, without accommodations. Instead they stay with Lonie. “They’re colleagues, and we want them to be successful.”

The success also translates in the carillonneur dealing with an endemic problem facing all performers. “Ever tower is different,” says Lonie. “You may have the same repertoire, but the weight of bells, how they sound, and the playing console are different. When you sit at a Steinway or Yamaha (piano), you know you’re going to have 88 keys and where middle C is. For example, I go from 48 bells at White Marsh to 67 in Princeton and to 25 in Philadelphia. You have to know your repertoire and be able to adapt.”

Then there are personal struggles, like Lonie’s. “I have a fear of heights. My challenge is to get into that tower without too much drama,” she says, explaining her holding the wall and averting her eyes away from the landing during our climb.

We’re nearing the end of the day’s program, and Lonie changes genres and breaks into Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” — a buoyant waltz with lyrics mentioning being “on the ground” and being “mid-air.”

Lonie seems to relish these moments, something reinforced later when she says, “When you’re up there and you’re providing music to the community and when you know someone you don’t know and have never seen and they are hearing music. It’s the greatest gift.”

Also part of that gift is a “request line,” with listeners sending in e-mail requests. The most frequently requested tunes are “Happy Birthday,” “Jingle Bells,” and “Old Nassau.” She says during one heavy snowstorm, she got a request for “Let It Snow.”

Lonie says in order to create the summer guest series, “I collaborate with my colleagues at the other carillon towers on the Philadelphia circuit. We get together in December and issue invitations as well as extend some. Unless advertised as a student recital, guest players need to be carillonneur members of the GNCA or hold diplomas from a carillon school.

“A nice tradition for the Princeton summer series is to offer a recital to a ‘newly minted’ carillonneur, namely someone who had the year before passed their GNCA carillonneur exam. (It) gives them a leg up on touring,” she says.

Beyond the artistry, Lonie says it is a great opportunity for people just looking for a free summer offering — and more. “You don’t have to buy a ticket or find a parking space. It’s a community and democratic experience.”

“Tuning the Air” runs Sundays, July 3 to August 14, at 1 p.m.

July 3: Ulla Laage, organizer of the Our Saviors Church International Summer Festivals in Copenhagen.

July 10: Guild of Carillonneurs in North America Class of 2015 recitalists Rachael Perfecto, Connecticut, and Jakob DeVreese, Belgium.

July 17: The Treblemakers, duet carillonneurs Lisa Lonie and Janet Tebbel, carillonneur of the First United Methodist Church of Germantown and the Miraculous Medal Shrine, both in Philadelphia.

July 24: Auke de Boer, carillonneur of the University of Groningen, The Netherlands

July 31: Toru Takao, a Japanese born German-trained musician and freelance carillonneur.

August 7: Yale Guild of Carillonneurs, Guild of Carillonneurs in North American members, and international performing partners Tiffany Lin and Michael Soltke, Washington.

August 14: Lisa Lonie presents “Family Fun & Frolic,” a children’s program with narration and selections from Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals” and other tunes for the young at heart.

August 21: Daniel Kehoe, the first carillonneur of Trinity College in Connecticut.

August 28: Janet Tebbel, Philadelphia-based carillonneur.

Cleveland Tower, Princeton University, 88 College Road West. Free. Rain or shine. 609-258-3654 or

Facebook Comments