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On a quiet campus, the Chapel bells continue to ring

Even with campus nearly empty and students scattered around the world, Duke’s voice continues to sing. 

At 5 p.m. every weekday, the bells of the Duke Chapel’s carillon play for 15 minutes, as they have for decades. From a room partway up the Chapel tower, Joseph Fala, interim carillonneur and staff specialist for Chapel music, plays a melody of hope and stability in a time of uncertainty. 

“The school is still very much alive,” Fala said. “It’s almost like a candle lit in a window—there’s some light in the sound of the bells that are still perpetuating on campus.”

For him, the ringing of the bells signifies that the University will not be silent during the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Each stroke of the keyboard or push of the foot pedal causes a clapper to knock against a bronze bell, producing a chime that challenges the eerie quiet on campus. Meanwhile, classes and services persist, even if the students and congregation are scattered across the globe.

Fala, who is also an organ scholar with the Chapel, said the sound of the carillon is an ingrained part of the campus architecture. The Chapel itself is singing, and he is simply the one behind the scenes operating it.

In this, he echoed the words of former Duke President William Preston Few, who led the University when it took on its current name in 1924. When George Allen and William Perkins of the Duke Endowment told Few in 1930 that they wanted to donate a carillon to the school, Few wrote in a letter that the “Chapel bells will in a sense be the voice of the University.” 

The bells also stand as a pillar of dependability and consistency in these turbulent times. Carillonneurs at Duke have been striking the instrument’s pedals and oak batons up in the Chapel tower every weekday for almost 90 years.

“To have [the carillon] continue to play is a way of saying that the campus is still as it always has been and will continue to be that way,” Fala said. “Keeping that momentum or rhythm of the daily ringing of the bells is what is so inspiring to a lot of people.”

Fala has the freedom to choose which songs he will play for each 15-minute recital. Aside from the tradition of playing “Dear Old Duke,” the University’s alma mater, on Friday afternoons, he tries to select songs that reflect the upcoming holidays and spirit on campus, such as playing scores from “Beauty and the Beast” on Valentine’s Day. Now, he said he is focusing on hymns that speak to hope, comfort and healing. 

Despite the trek up 169 steps to the bells, Fala said he looks forward to playing the carillon every day. He hopes that he is carrying out what his predecessor, Samuel Hammond, would have done. Hammond was Duke’s second university carillonneur and played the bells for five decades, which Fala said was his form of daily prayer. 

Duke’s carillon is purely mechanical, and according to a listing by the World Carillon Federation, it is one of about 170 such instruments in the nation. Its 50 oak batons and 26 pedals control 50 bells, cast in England, that allow the instrument to span four octaves. With the largest bell weighing 11,200 pounds, and the smallest weighing 10.5, Fala said he has to put his body weight into it when he plays.

The carillon chamber has a practice console, allowing Fala to perfect new songs to add to his repertoire without disrupting campus, and he now practices about an hour a day. He said he hopes to one day become Duke’s third university carillonneur, a position that he views as akin to an artist-in-residence at the University. 

Despite the nearly empty campus, Fala feels a greater sense of duty now than ever.

Although much of the Duke community is not within the half-mile earshot of the chiming bells, the Chapel has continued to have services through livestreams and videos. Hopefully, there will soon be an opportunity to hear the bells virtually as well, he said.

“Keeping the bells sounding throughout this challenging period is a sign of hope and a reminder that the ministry of Duke Chapel continues… even though it looks a little different,” Director of Chapel Music Zebulon Highben wrote in an email.

Fala hopes that when everyone is back on campus, the Duke community will be more aware of the carillon that chimes as the University’s voice. 

“When I go up into the tower, I get into the zone playing, and I think about the time when the students will be back here, and down on the ground, it’ll be a busy, thriving university again,” Fala said. “I think playing is one of the things that—for whoever is on campus and whoever hears them—will serve as hope to people for the day when we’ll all return to campus together.”

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