For 20 years, Robin Austin has been delighting audiences from his perch in Princeton’s Cleveland tower with the sweet music of bells but when Austin climbed the 137 steps this year to perform in the Summer Carillon series he knew it would be his last official concert at the university.
After starting the summer series at Princeton, working on the refurbishment of the carillon and teaching dozens of students and professors the intricacies of playing the carillon, Austin is pulling up his roots and moving to Illinois.
He resigned as the University Carilloneur and also quit his day job in the fundraising office of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to take a job with the Springfield Park District in Illinois where he will play the Thomas Rees Memorial Carillon for concerts that attract thousands of people. It is one of five full-time carilloneur jobs in the country.
“It’s a little bittersweet,” he said in an interview at the tower, which boasts panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. “I love teaching here. The students have been fantastic.”
The summer carillon series is a chance for the public to take out their lawn chairs and hear music set to bells – ranging from Mozart to George Gershwin. While they listen, the music pours out of the tower. The series is held Sundays from 1 p.m. to 1:45 p.m. at the Princeton Graduate College and concludes on Sunday, September 2. (See the remaining schedule below).
For Austin, 56, playing the carillon at Princeton has been a labor of love. He has been working six or seven days a week – commuting an hour from his home in Media, Pa. to play the carillon and teach students. But that long workweek has become wearing. “I’m at the age where it will be nice to have one job,” he says.
Penna Rose, director of Chapel Music at Princeton, notes that Austin’s “talent and enthusiasm for the carillon are shown in a variety of ways,” including renovating and maintaining the carillon, teaching students, and starting the summer series. “We at Princeton will miss him greatly,” she says, adding that the university would begin its search for a replacement for Austin as the official carilloneur and in the meantime would probably appoint an interim carilloneur.
Austin’s musical roots go back two generations. He grew up in Media, Pennsylvania. His father was an electrician and he credits his mother with his creative side. While she worked at various times as a seamstress and hotel manager, she was also an artist. Austin said his love of music probably comes from his maternal grandparents, “Tillie” and Henry Weirich, who had a Victorian house filled with instruments next door when Austin was growing up. Henry Weirich had immigrated to the United States from Germany in the early 1930s and gave up the violin to become an engineer. “Tillie” turned down a scholarship at the Curtis Institute to marry his father but still had a beautiful singing voice and said she knew hundreds of songs by heart. Austin says he has many fond memories of his grandfather playing mandolin while his grandmother played the ukelele.
After graduating from West Chester University in Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree and receiving a master’s degree in social service at Bryn Mawr College, Austin went on to pursue a career in non-profits, while at the same time pursuing his passion of playing the carillon. He started out as a school social worker and then moved into fund-raising in nonprofits. In addition to working at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1998 to 2005 and from 2011 to this year, he also has worked for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Saint Christopher’s Hospital for Children, and Recording for the Blind (now Learning Ally Inc.).
Austin fell in love with the carillon in 1979 when he attended a carillon concert and has been hooked ever since. It is a challenging instrument. It looks like an organ with huge wooden keys and pedals but it’s played with rapid-fire fists and feet and the keys connect to dozens of bells high up in the tower.
Princeton’s carillon boasts 67 bells –– much more than the 48 or 49 bells most carillons have, Austin explains. The bells range from four huge bells weighing six and a half tons that are big enough for several people to stand in to smaller bells at the top of the tower that weigh just 20 pounds.”This is probably one of the top carillons in the world,” he says.
The carillon had fallen into disrepair from the 1960s through the early 1990s and he helped raise funds to refurbish the instrument and promote carillon music. Although Austin doesn’t play on weekdays or during finals to avoid interrupting students’ studies, many people have become fans. Austin says people often come up to him to praise the music they heard from afar. Even golfers on the nearby Springdale golf course have said they schedule golf outings for Sunday afternoons when he is playing.
Carillons have been around for 500 years but they are rare instruments. There are only 650 carillons in the world and carillon players are rare but devoted musicians.
Lisa Lonie, another well-known carilloneur, is as passionate about the instrument as Austin is. Lonie, 49, of Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, heard a carillon when she was a teenager when she was playing in a handbell choir. She started taking lessons and has been playing ever since. “It was the most glorious instrument,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Forget about those handbells!’”
Lonie said she loves the fact that she doesn’t have to face the audience from far up in the tower — something she has always dreaded. She also simply thinks it’s a beautiful instrument that people can’t help but listen to. When she plays the carillon at Saint Thomas Church in Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania, where she has been the carilloneur since 1999, people walking by or stopped at a traffic light hear the music floating down.
Lonie has a day job as the executive assistant to the president of Salus University in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, but she also plays every Sunday and every Christmas and religious holiday at the church. Her family has grown used to the fact that she is gone each Christmas from 2 in the afternoon to 1 a.m. the following day. She has performed at numerous locations in the U.S., Canada and Europe and often performs on the carillon at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, the oldest carillon in North America.
Both she and Austin see themselves as evangelists for the carillon – spreading the word about the instrument. Lonie is involved in the Guild of Carilloneurs in North America, which developed a certification process for carilloneurs. “As my husband calls it, a certifiable ding dong,” she jokes.
In addition to playing at Princeton, Lonie will do a Northeast tour — playing at sites like the Trinity College Chapel in Hartford and the Yale Memorial Carillon in New Haven and two sites in Massachusetts. Her husband Paul comes along and occasionally pitches in to help fix the carillons if something goes wrong.
“It is a passion,” she says. “We’re not only musicians but we’re also cheerleaders for the instrument. If you ask people on the street –– they don’t know what a carillon is, so we have to be PR people.”
The Summer Carillon Series takes place at the Princeton Graduate College on College Road in Princeton on Sundays from 1 to 1:45 p.m., rain or shine.
August 12: Lisa Lonie of Pennsylvania.
August 19: George Mathew Jr. of Vermont.
August 26: Steve Schreiber, of Pennsylvania.
September 2: Nick Huang, Princeton University Class of 2011, of Pennsylvania.